I try to avoid predictions, but like most people I was pretty confident that May would win a decent majority yesterday even after all her wobbles of recent weeks.
Her weaknesses certainly have a lot to do with the result. Early on after she called the election she was way ahead of Labour in the polls, but the campaigning has found her out. She is clearly not a happy campaigner and not a people person. Her strengths seem to be in making carefully calibrated and calculated political interventions, as she has done with a handful of impressive speeches on Brexit. During the campaign she came across as wooden and fearful, which isn't a good look for a leader, let alone one running a quasi-presidential campaign saying 'Vote for Me', not us. Then when the terrorist attacks came, she did her thing but was quickly exposed by Labour on police cuts and didn't have the flexibility and political skills to respond.
Which brings us on to Labour, for its success is not just down to the weaknesses of its opponents. Credit to Jeremy Corbyn, though I'm the opposite of a fan of his, he ran a positive campaign with a positive manifesto offering hope. In the process, and with Labour 'moderates' shutting up, Labour managed to sidestep its divisions and piece together a coalition of voters that was enough to pick up 40% of the vote.
There was clearly a 'Corbyn effect', energising and enthusing younger voters as well as old lefties, and taking advantage of the Greens calling so much for a progressive alliance, thereby basically telling their people they may as well vote Labour, which many did.
However, I think most observers neglect the strength of the Labour machine, which was built up during the Kinnock and Blair-Brown years and is expert at targeting voters, manufacturing simple messages, tailoring them to different demographic groups and rolling it all out in co-ordinated, basically effective local campaigns.
In this way Labour managed to, somehow, square the circle on Brexit, at least in electoral terms. The idea that the election was a rejection of Brexit seems misguided (probably willfully for the most part), not least given prominent Brexit campaigner Kate Hoey's thumping victory in the heavily-Remain-voting Vauxhall constituency - when she had a highly personal campaign waged against her by the Liberal Democrats in league with Gina Miller and other prominent Remainers. For Remain supporters, Labour did offer something though; it opposed Theresa May and her apparent 'hard Brexit' strongly. However for Leave voters it offered something too: accepting the referendum result and agreeing to the trigger of Article 50 - thereby partially neutralising the focus of May's campaign even before she got into trouble over her manifesto and terrorism/police cuts.
To me, Labour's position on Brexit looks incoherent as actual policy, since its people say they want Single Market access while also wanting some kind of vague end of free movement while also maintaining they couldn't walk away without a deal. These aims seem incommensurable if taken seriously. I would guess they derive from a compromise trying to keep three different forces within the party happy. These are the following:
- The likes of Corbyn and John McDonnell who understand that Brexit could open up more opportunities for the exercise of national government and quite like the idea, but know they need to keep their EU fan activists and MPs on board;
- Those people (and Labour has plenty of them) who do not understand negotiations and genuinely fail to realise that you have to be prepared to walk away in order to get a 'good' deal;
- Those who are connected into the Mandelson-Blair project which links in to George Osborne and a few other Tories, some Liberal Democrats and also into the EU, who can see Brexit unravelling if Britain refuses to accept a deal offered by the EU. In this way they want to guide us to that point while indulging their more naive party colleagues that a hard Brexit would be disastrous so should be ruled out altogether. I don't know anything about this personally, but I would assume Keir Starmer as Labour's Shadow Secretary on Brexit is plugged in to this group.
What happens next I have as little idea as anyone else, but there is no doubt that these anti-Brexit forces are now strengthened. Labour may have voted to trigger Article 50, but it is not fully committed to Brexit and the positions it takes could easily dilute it to the point of not actually happening. Those positions will now have a greater influence on what actually happens. The Blair-Mandelson-Osborne-Clegg project could yet win out by the back door, which is rather apt given that neither of them are sitting MPs any longer.