Corbyn Humiliates May. Britain Remains Divided. Does Brexit Really Mean Brexit Now?

Well, there is a certain amount of humble pie available today. Few people got this one right.

When he was elected, few observers of politics thought he could do anything but lead Labour to a drubbing. Even a few weeks ago, Jeremy Corbyn lead his party to a drubbing in a local elections. The Tories were meant to hoover up the Ukip vote. Cynics said that young voters would sit out this election. The Conservatives were confident not only of a large majority but of smashing Labour.  

It didn’t work out that way, did it? We were badly wrong.

Since the referendum, it has been the Tories who have been strong while Labour remained paralysed in its response to Brexit. At 10pm, the dynamics of British politics changed in an instance. At dawn, as Labour won Southampton Test, it was confirmed that May’s political gamble failed.

Theresa May chanced, with high opinion ratings and strong by-election results, on a snap election to increase her majority. She gambled that the country was coming together around her vision of Brexit. She was wrong: Remain voters in the south and London shunned her party. She lost seats such as Peterborough, Ipswich and Canterbury. And her advance in the north and Midlands that once promised a large majority barely materialised.

The only compensation for the Tories was a good night in Scotland as 2015’s SNP surge was held back by the Unionist tide.

May is fatally diminished

May fought a truly disastrous campaign. Her reputation will never recover. The magical hold she has held over British politics since her election snapped. All her capital was with Brexiters. And by putting Brexit itself in jeopardy, she will have lost their support. She inherited a party with a lead of one hundred seats over Labour; she inherited a party with a 7% lead over leader. Both have been slashed.

The look on her face, as she was re-elected in her Maidenhead constituency, said it all. May is fatally dimished.

This was a Brexit election. Britain did not endorse Theresa May’s Hard Brexit approach. They did not elect Jeremy Corbyn either. Nobody won. The parliamentary arithmetic makes stability near impossible.

 

That said, Jeremy Corbyn clearly had a good night. In fact, a very good night. Probably made sweeter for him and his supporters by the doubters he disproved. He defied expectations to not only win seats but to win votes.

Labour did better in urban areas, with younger voters but also with working-class Brexiters: Corbyn has successfully harnessed the protest vote, and ensured the Brexit vote did not decamp en masse to May’s Tories. He deserves credit for that. Corbyn is here to stay - and Corbynism.

The challenge for him is to further prove his doubters wrong. He must now become prime ministerial by building a united Labour party that forces May to the negotiating table in parliament. In an uncertain environment, he might find himself in Downing Street - with or without a second election.

Having lost her majority, May has very little credibility. Her position is far from strong and stable. But who could replace her? It is only a year since she succeeded David Cameron by being the last woman standing. Amber Rudd holds a marginal seat and is perhaps too closely associated with the botched campaign; Boris Johnson is forever tarred with his £350m untruth.

Two destructive votes. The Tories’ claim to provide strong government has been destroyed.

The idea that Britain can start negotiations in the next fortnight is risible

May said that she needed a big majority to negotiate a good Brexit deal. Her own logic dictates that she cannot do that now.

The strange period that Britain enjoyed post-referendum is probably now over: Britain is entering a period of political instability. The country is divided between old and young, between urban Britain and non-metropolitan areas, between Remainer and Brexiter. Two party politics is back and it looks as if it is now working against the Conservatives. Faced with political confusion, there is going to be a lot of pain as investors take fright. Neither party have prepared voters.  

Any future government will not be able to negotiate an easy exit from the EU without a majority. The idea that Britain can start negotiations in the next fortnight is risible. As the largest party, with DUP votes and concessions, May has the political legitimacy to pursue a Brexit strategy. She has lost her moral legitimacy though. Her premiership might be over in days. 

Even if she stays, she cannot do the one sensible thing and withdraw Britain’s Article 50 in what will undoubtedly be a period of political and economic uncertainty. Worse, despite her failure, she might need to doubledown her strategy to appease her right - further angering the 48%.  

In the event of May - or any other Tory falling short - Jeremy Corbyn will be in an interesting position, perhaps to negotiate some form of deal with the SNP without conceding a second referendum to Scotland. The election saw the nationalists fall back in the face of a campaign a unionist tide: Nicola Sturgeon talked of a period of reflection.

The SNP - still both the largest party in Scotlandand Westminster’s third largest party - have been vigorously Remain. What happens to Brexit in such circumstances?

Having been burnt (more than once), few are going to make predictions now.

Now, for that humble pie...

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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