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Theresa May’s hubris cost the Conservatives dearly

Order may not have returned to British politics, but symmetry has. A prime minister, thrust into office as a result of the terrible miscalculation of her predecessor, has found her grandiose isolationist ambitions knocked out of kilter, if not completely reversed, by a mirror-image miscalculation on her part.

You got the sense, watching Thursday night's relentless turning of the tables, that this was not just a British moment. The angry-politics victories of 2016, those triumphs of nationalism and populism, were all won by vanishingly slight margins, if not by pure manipulation. Still, the leaders of their movements, whether in London or Washington, behaved as if they had won maximalist mandates for the most extreme versions of their ideas. Yet their victories had merely been protests against the unfair status quo.

On Thursday, the world witnessed the inevitable result.

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Read more: May tries to cling to power as U.K. Tories fall short of majority

Theresa May stands over the smouldering shell of a government, her Conservative Party's cratered electoral map the ultimate product of her hubris. Her party will be able to govern, likely without her, but only barely. It will rely on the parliamentary support of Northern Ireland's Unionists, who are arch-Tory in ideology but do not support her "hard" exit from the European Union. Her "Brexit" agenda is effectively dead – a legal reality, triggered with an irreversible notice given to Brussels, that has lost its political backing in the real world.

She is surely aware of the dark justice in her humiliation: She owed her prime ministership to a nearly identical act of hubris on the part of her predecessor David Cameron, who thought he could rid himself of his party's flaky anti-European flank by putting their pet idea to a referendum he was sure he'd win. After he resigned in shame, she was the only MP fully willing to pick up the soiled hard-Brexit ball and run with it. Neither her party or its voters were really cheering her on, and she is now facing Mr. Cameron's fate.

The symmetries extend beyond the fate of the Prime Minister. Britain's two monolithic parties now find themselves in strikingly similar straits. Neither party, with its current leader, is capable of attracting enough voter support to govern sustainably.

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn will not realize this at first, nor will many of his party's members, because he has raised his party's standing during this election, from a historic low earlier this year to a merely disappointing non-victory on Thursday. That historic low was caused, of course, by one event: the selection of Mr. Corbyn as party leader. Thursday's disappointing non-victory was also a product of that event: Virtually any previous Labour leader would have scored a strong majority against such an unpopular and ineptly ill-prepared Tory campaign.

Mr. Corbyn's failure to win on Thursday was a product of what must have seemed, from within his campaign office, to be a wise strategy: He was silent on the one issue everyone cared about. He hardly mentioned the European Union, and in fact promised to end Britain's membership in the common market and the free movement of European citizens across its border, the same stance as Ms. May. It worked to a degree: He won a lot of new votes simply by being a normal politician who defended the welfare state and conventional Labour policies. But by evading the crucial matter of his country's fate and future, he put himself at war with his own party and many of its members – and had no chance of winning a majority. He will hang on to the party leadership, probably for a long time – but the core of his party is very likely to abandon him.

Ms. May's Tories are also turning against themselves. By turning the Conservatives into the Brexit Party, Ms. May has pegged its fate to a boutique ideological stance held by a small sliver of its MPs and – as Thursday night showed – a very limited share of voters. That ultra-isolationist position lost her dozens of key ridings, including potentially such Tory strongholds as Kensington. A civil war within her party is sure to ensue in her wake, beginning this week.

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This, too, is not just a British problem. The push-pull between populist anti-politics and the more conventional but less alluring politics of inclusion – either on the right or the left – is the story of parties in many countries today. This year it has already led to the collapse of both major parties in France, and the demise of mainstream parties in the Netherlands; it is leading America's Democrats and Republicans into self-immolation; it has recently consumed Canada's Conservatives. We are about to get a front-row glimpse, from across the ocean, of where it all might lead.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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