The UK vote: dealing with the unexpected

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The Churchill statue at Westminster

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When British Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap general election in April, buoyed by strong approval ratings, she was confident that her Conservative party would claim an easy landslide victory.

Despite having pledged several times previously that she would not call a snap election, May, who became prime minister last summer after David Cameron resigned following his EU referendum defeat, argued that the UK needed the vote in order to strengthen its hand as she ushered the country towards complex Brexit negotiations.

Factions among the right-wing press rallied behind her, hailing her the new Margaret Thatcher and encouraging an annihilation of the left-wing Labour party to such a degree it would cease to ever be a serious opponent again.

Those same newspapers turned against her on Friday morning as her gamble backfired spectacularly at the end of what has been one of the most dramatic, and surprising, election campaigns in Britain. And one that humiliated May less than a year after Cameron was left shame-faced by his referendum miscalculation.

With just days to go before the start of Brexit talks, the party lost its majority in parliament, ending up with fewer seats than it had before and leaving the country with a hung parliament.

This election was expected to be a resounding success for May as much as it was expected to finish off Jeremy Corbyn, the mild-mannered leader of the Labour party. Instead, it fired him up. Mocked for years as being ‘weak and unelectable’, his surge of energy reinvigorated a weary electorate that had also anticipated a dull campaign with an inevitable outcome.

As May defied calls to resign on Friday and scrambled to form a government with her party’s only lifeline, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the real winner of this election was undoubtedly Corbyn, a man who came into his own after defeating attempts of a leadership coup and overcoming smear campaigns.

He has singlehandedly managed to restore Labour, which now has 261 parliamentary seats, as a credible opponent. He also killed-off Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’, bringing the party back to its socialist roots while luring back voters who had defected to the populist UKIP party.

As May snubbed public debate during the campaign, relying instead on her robotic ‘strong and stable’ mantra, Corbyn took to it with ease, engaging with voters and the media. He was often described as a man of principle, even attracting a surprise compliment from Nigel Farage, the former UKIP leader who played a key role in bringing about Brexit.

But it wasn’t just about May’s dire performance compared to Corbyn’s vibrant one. After seven brutal years of austerity, the Labour party’s manifesto promised to scrap tuition fees, renationalise the railway, invest in building one million new homes, and raise corporation tax while putting a 50% tax rate on those earning more than £123,000 a year.

With its tuition fee pledge, it’s unsurprising that the party made some of its biggest gains from university towns across the country while inspiring young people to vote. Some 72 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds are estimated to have gone to the polls compared to just over 40 percent in 2015.

The Conservative manifesto, meanwhile, outlined plans that would hit pensioners, who are usually among its biggest band of voters, and schoolchildren the hardest. It talked about raising the threshold cap on the amount people are expected to pay for care while restricting winter fuel payments, something less well-off pensioners have come to depend on. The party also planned to ditch free dinners for schoolchildren.

But perhaps one of May’s biggest shortcomings was her lack of conviction – she went from being a hardened Remainer before the referendum on the EU to someone who championed a ‘hard Brexit’ at any cost. And in the wake of last weekend’s terrorist attack in London, she came under fire for the deep cuts in the police force imposed during her six years as home secretary. She also vowed to tear up human rights laws that hamper new terrorism legislation.

As for the other contenders, the election crushed UKIP while vastly reducing the influence of the Liberal Democrats, and has casted doubt over hopes of a second independence referendum in Scotland after the SNP suffered huge losses.

But as joyous as Labour’s turnaround was for millions of Britons waking up on Friday morning, concerns are beginning to set in over the Conservative party’s new coalition partner: the DUP. The socially conservative party is anti-abortion, has opposed gay rights in the past and denies climate change.

Hopes for a softer Brexit are also beginning to fade. With the support of the DUP, May said she will form a government that can provide “certainty” for the future as “friends and allies” come together to take the UK’s divorce from the EU forward.

Perhaps her short speech outside 10 Downing Street was just another sign of her arrogance and desire to cling to power. Time will tell if she manages to do that. Whatever the repercussions of this election, far from building a strong and stable country, she seems to have left it considerably weaker than it was just yesterday.