POLITICS

Five Things We Learned From An Extraordinary UK 2017 Election Night - Paul Waugh

HuffPost UK's executive politics editor gives his outtakes from the election.

09/06/2017 12:22 SAST | Updated 09/06/2017 12:24 SAST

1. MAYBOT MALFUNCTION

"Nothing has changed! Nothing has changed!" In full Maybot malfunction mode, that's what Theresa May famously said during her manifesto meltdown just a few weeks ago. Something's changed alright. And it may well mean Britain's Prime Minister is changed too.

It was 5.52am when it was officially confirmed that the UK now had a hung Parliament (were you up for Southampton Test and Alan Whitehead?), and that May had lost the precious Commons majority that David Cameron had slogged through five years to achieve. Yet just like Cameron's reckless gamble on an EU referendum, May's hubristic decision to call a snap election has failed and failed spectacularly.

The woman whom we were told was the very opposite of a gambler ended up trashing her own brand after listening to the siren voices of her advisers and betting the house on a snap poll. Like Cameron, she was a Remainer who played with Eurosceptic fire and ended up getting badly burned. The cautious pragmatist allowed herself to be portrayed both as a Leave-loving zealot and a flip-flopper.

May was a long way from "strong and stable" at her own count in Maidenhead in the early hours, her voice shaky, her eyes flicking about like a lost rabbit. She said it was "incumbent" on "us" to ensure we have a "period of stability". That sounded very much like her fighting for breathing space, but had a faint hint she could go after a 'period'. Sources close to her insisted since then that she has "no intention" of resigning, but her fate may not be in her hands.

The Tory ministers are privately saying May has to go, some think she should stay only as 'caretaker' PM while a Tory leadership contest takes place. 'Team Theresa' looks dead (manifesto man Ben Gummer lost his seat, Amber Rudd's majority is so tight she can't be leader, policy chief Nick Timothy is seen as a bearded Rasputin whose own radical ideas did as much damage as Corbyn's). George Osborne couldn't hide his glee about the "catastrophic" campaign. Boris Johnson, who may become favourite to take the crown, texted his sister soon after the shock exit poll with the joke 'MayDay!' If she is ousted, May's 330 days in office would be the shortest of any PM since Andrew Bonar Law in 1923.

The fact is that May tried to turn the whole general election into a referendum on herself. She tried asked Ted Heath's question, 'Who governs Britain?' and, just as it did back in 1974, Britain replied 'Not you!' In 43 of the marginal seats which she personally visited, Labour held on to 20, took two from the Tories and one seat from the SNP. The Tories gained just five. Her fear of meeting real voters, her unease with small talk, her 'computer-says-no' refusal to detail her policies or costings, all seem to have caught up with her.

Britons hate being taken for fools and hate being taken for granted even more. Brenda in Bristol started this campaign with "Not another one! I honestly can't stand it" and she seemed to speak for the nation. Brits also seem to mistrust Presidential politics and have reverted to good old-fashioned Parliamentary democracy, voting for parties not just leaders. That is just one of the many lessons of the night.

2. JEZ HE CAN

For Jeremy Corbyn, a new day has dawned, has it not? Tony Blair's morning glory in 1997 seems a long, long time ago now, and his party has moved a long way from the one that won that first landslide 20 years ago.

If May was the Hillary Clinton of this election (a terrible campaigner with a sense of entitlement), Corbyn was Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders rolled into one. He had a Trump-like feel for the pain of many voters suffering from globalisation, a dogged defiance of the mainstream media and 'experts' and – most important of all – a message of hope (yes Trump gave rustbelt voters hope, folks). But he also had a Sanders-like mass movement and left-wing policy platform.

Corbyn was ridiculed when he said earlier this week May should resign over police cuts. Yet he's having the last laugh now, repeating that call for her to go at his own count in Islington in the early hours. Armed with a Zen-like calm and a hide thicker than a rhino, he has shown that campaigning actually can make a difference in elections. He just said he's 'ready to serve' as a minority Government PM.

Having promised to 'rewrite the rules' of politics, he's done just that in many ways, not least in partially disproving the theory that elections are decided over years not weeks. Just last month his party was trashed in the local elections. Corbyn should take much of the credit for depriving May of her majority despite being massively outspent by the Conservatives, despite millions of free Tory billboards in the form of daily newspapers, despite all those Facebook attack ads.

Some of Labour's victories over the Tories are truly stunning (Plymouth where the anti-defence card didn't work at all). The party won Canterbury, for crying out loud. In places like Walthamstow, Stella Creasy clocked up 83% of the vote. Many of Corbyn's critics had expected to set out leadership ambitions but people like Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna are instead being asked if they will be prepared to join his Shadow Cabinet. Many critics are chewing on their words. Owen Smith said: "He's definitely got something. He beat me fair and square and he's done very well in this election."

And yet for all that, remember that Labour has not won this election. Umunna said Labour was founded more than a century ago not just represent working people but to form a government on their behalf. "It's a big step forward but ultimately we must get into government in the future," he said. Amid all the celebration at whacking May, there may be a realisation that this is another "brilliant defeat" (copyright Blair-supporting Chris Powell after 1992). For now, the focus is on unifying the party. Arch critic John Woodcock said: "The Labour party has always been a broad church and never broader than the moment".

3. CUTS BEAT BREXIT

A defeated Tory MP texted me the reasons he lost: "Shit campaign. BME voters. UKIP breaking for Labour more than we thought". And it is indeed the last of those that is perhaps the real story – ex-Kippers and non-voters mobilised by Corbyn's anti-cuts message.

It's almost as if Leave voters had banked their Brexit victory and decided that the pain of austerity was the real issue. One senior Labour MP tells me UKIP voters "came back because we were in trouble and they care more about public services than immigration and defence". The Kippers who went Tory for both immigration and defence just didn't help May enough. School cuts really moved parents, pensioners worried about fuel allowance and 'dementia tax' (Labour MPs tell me of lots of Tory 'switchers' over those two alone), public sector workers hated the idea of more years of paycuts.

It looks like 'the economy, stupid', again. People's real income growth is going down, their jobs feel more insecure than ever, and they let Westminster know it. Former Tory chairman Sir Eric Pickles said "people voted with their wallets", attracted by £10/hour minimum wage, free school meals, abolished tuition fees. Yet that's a damning indictment on his own party after years of saying they were the wallet-keepers. It also suggests May's refusal to talk about the deficit gave Labour a free pass as well as a free lunch offer.

But Brexit did play some part in the geographic distribution of the results. In some seats, 'Angry Remainers' certainly played their part, furious at May's dismissal of the feelings of 48% of the population. The youth voters, upset that their future had been decided by the oldies last year in the EU referendum, turned out in big numbers too.

As for Brexit itself, the result could leave May a hostage to both her hard Brexiteers (don't forget the DUP is a Brexit party) and her emboldened Remainer MPs. Over the Channel, EU sources were playing hardball, suggesting they would not extend the two-year timetable for talks. Privately, if they think a softer Brexit is possible, they could be flexible. Yet publicly, Merkel and Macron are now the ones with a 'stronger hand', the very opposite of what May wanted. They may well say you can't have your cake and eat it by quitting the EU and staying in the customs union or single market.

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch again that 'bong' moment when the exit poll warned us Britain was set to deliver yet another shock electoral result. The third in three years.

4. UNITED KINGMAKERS

MPs in Scotland and Northern Ireland really have shaped this election. But for the Tory wins north of the border, May's position would be even more precarious. And it's the 10 Democratic Unionist Party in Ulster that offers her a lifeline in getting any legislation through. The PM owes a lot to the 'celtic fringe'.

Labour and Tory gains in Scotland have knocked back the SNP, with Ruth Davidson declaring "Indyref2 is dead". For Labour, seeing the Conservatives mop up parts of the unionist vote must be painful, yet it does suggest that the structural problem of writing off Scottish seats now recedes. One day, who knows when, Labour could turn its surge in votes into seats as the SNP tires as the party of government.

Structurally, Labour was also worried it had forever lost 'Leave' voters thanks to the rival powerful emotion of English nationalism. That too has receded a bit overnight. Labour did extremely well in Wales, taking places like Cardiff North and seeing off the Tory threat in places like Wrexham.

Yet Labour's other big lesson is that united parties, not just united kingdoms, are its best friend. Time and again, voters said one reason they couldn't trust Corbyn was because 'his own MPs don't trust him'. During the campaign, Labour was united as it hadn't been at any previous point under Corbyn's two-year leadership. As the Tories rediscover their own talent for disunity, will Labour now rally round a common cause?

As for the country as whole, a year on from the EU referendum and seven years on from the 2010 hung Parliament, the results just show how divided we all still are. Jeremy Corbyn urged May to "make way for a government that is truly representative of all of the people of this country". But no party is this morning can claim it is that.

5. WINNERS AND LOSERS

UKIP and the Lib Dems look like electorally spent forces. Though Farron's team insist they increased votes and seats, the way Labour and the Tories exploited higher turnout to squeeze our system into a two-horse race is what produced all those amazing vote shares. It's quite a role reversal with Labour when Tory MPs appeared to say their higher vote share was a thing, even though they lost seats.

As for the other old saying that 'you can't win anything with kids', Corbyn's Momentum will take satisfaction from the result. In Cambridge Dan Zeichner increased his majority from a few hundred to over 20,000 and in Kensington (not yet declared but Labour expecting a shock win) I'm told hundreds of young people turned up.

Among the other winners overnight: Parliamentary politics; John Curtice for sticking to his exit poll prediction; Gordon Brown (for proving snap elections are dangerous); Facebook account managers (they took a wall of cash from the Tory ads that had little impact); pollsters Survation (who stuck to their guns and called it Con 41% Lab 40% yesterday) and YouGov (who backed off yesterday but still had a remarkable forecast model); women MPs (up to a record number of 192 so far).

Among the losers: Presidential politics; Peter Kellner (he kept doubting Curtice in one of the best spats of the night); the newspapers who pilloried Corbyn; the 'Magic Money Tree' slogan; pollsters ICM, ComRes et al; all those Tory and Labour candidates and officials who as late as last night said working class voters in Leave towns in Yorkshire, the North East and West Midlands were turning to May; Nick Clegg; Alex Salmond; Sir Lynton Crosby.

Finally, the big winners were the Great British public. Never take the British voter for granted. The pollsters and Labour did it in 2015. Cameron did it in 2016. And May did it royally in 2017.

Paul Waugh is the executive editor of HuffPost UK's politics team.

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