UK election: hung parliament casts doubt over Theresa May’s future

Who knows? Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images

As the results continue to come in, it appears Theresa May’s snap election gamble has backfired. A hung parliament looks on the cards. Theresa May’s leadership is in grave doubt. The shape of the next government remains unclear. Experts react to the news.

Stuart Wilks-Heeg, head of politics, University of Liverpool

Theresa May is in deep, deep trouble. We know why she called the election; she wanted a bigger majority and a strong mandate ahead of the Brexit negotiations. At the time, it looked like she couldn’t fail, and now it seems that she has failed spectacularly. The campaign has fatally undermined her leadership, and the one thing that could have saved her – if she came through with a strong majority for the Conservative party – hasn’t happened. I think she is finished politically – whether she resigns, or is pushed out by her own party remains to be seen.

Michael Kitson, University Senior Lecturer in International Macroeconomics, University of Cambridge

The election result will bring economic uncertainty and instability not strength and stability. Many will focus on the short-term froth of falls in the pound and in stock markets but of greater concern are the significant long-term problems facing the UK economy.

Brexit is the most pressing issue: a common refrain was that an increased majority would provide Theresa May with more bargaining power over the terms of withdrawal. Well that cunning plan has gone down the drain. If the Conservatives form a minority government, the prime minister (whoever that may be) will have to balance the demands of fervent Brexit hardliners on their backbenches while confronted with an emboldened opposition.

As it stands, there is no coherent plan for Brexit, a failure often justified under the convenient veil of “not showing one’s hand”. Of additional concern is that there is an absence of a “long-term economic plan” – a soundbite that left the government with George Osborne. The economic strategy of the Conservatives is at best inchoate and, at worst, incoherent. It is a mixture of austerity-lite combined with an ill-defined industrial policy that will do little to increase productivity in the economy. We must wait to see if a new economic strategy emerges but a minority government is more likely to expend energy on short-term survival rather than planning for growth.

TM for PM? Stefan Rousseau/PA Images

Robin Pettit, senior lecturer in comparative politics, Kingston University

Some big names went tonight. Amber Rudd survived in Hastings and Rye, but only just, serving as an indication of the kind of night the Conservatives have had. Former SNP leader Alex Salmond was ousted, as was former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg – perhaps in a delayed backlash by young voters against tuition fees. There are some parallels to be drawn here. These high-profile losses suggest that both parties campaigned on issues which were largely felt to be settled: the SNP on a second Scottish independence referendum, and the Liberal Democrats on a second EU referendum, once a deal had been negotiated – neither of which the British people particularly wanted. Rather, there seems to be an acceptance of Brexit more generally – just not of Theresa May’s version.

Labour

Richard Murphy, professor of practice in international political economy, City, University of London

Labour has had an exceptional night. Many will be feeling euphoric. But the reality is that it has not won and it seems incredibly unlikely that it could put together any form of Progressive Alliance. With a hung parliament on the cards it is almost certain that the next election campaign has already begun. The battle for a majority is now underway. To achieve this Labour has three tasks to concentrate on.

The first is to present a coherent Brexit plan. The second is to end its infighting and build cohesion behind an agreed policy platform. Third, it has to shatter the magic money tree myth by getting people to understand that its macroeconomic policy reflects the way the world really works.

Labour has done well. But in a few months it may have to do even better to get into government. And to everyone’s surprise that is now politically and economically plausible.

Ben Williams, tutor in politics and political theory, University of Salford

The Tories had estimated that the vast bulk of the collapsing UKIP vote would go to them in this election, particularly in the industrial north. Some claimed the party had adopted an “M62 strategy” and sought to gain multiple parliamentary gains along the corridor of this motorway spanning across Lancashire and Yorkshire. But that doesn’t seem to have happened and a whole range of key target seats – such as Chester, Halifax and Darlington – that the Conservatives hoped to gain have stayed Labour red as a result. Even the very marginal seat of Barrow, held by arch-Corbyn critic John Woodcock, has remained Labour against the odds.

But while Labour has performed as strongly as ever in its inner-city northern city strongholds such as Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool, it was seen as vulnerable in the northern suburbs and smaller towns. However, its vote has proved to be resilient, fuelled by a higher national turnout and an influx of younger voters, as has been evident across the country.

Labour has even gone on to make some surprising northern gains such as the long-shot of Colne Valley in Yorkshire, as well as other seats that the Conservatives were expected to hold fairly comfortably, such as Bury North, Warrington South and Weaver Vale. But such gains were somewhat sporadic, and Labour failed to gain various other northern seats that the party held prior to 2010 and which would be required to form a majority Labour government, while also failing to regain the Copeland seat it lost in a by-election in early 2017.

The results in the north, while not particularly brilliant for Labour, were crucially better than expected. This in itself indicates some degree of appeal and durability to Corbynism outside of its perceived inner-city and London strongholds.

Brexit

Kathryn Simpson, lecturer in politics and public services, Manchester Metropolitan University

Dubbed the Brexit election, this general election provided very little clarity and specific details on what Brexit negotiations would be and what a post-Brexit UK would look like. And the electorate has recognised this.

There will not be a strong and stable government by the time Brexit negotations begin on June 19. That will have a robust impact on Brexit.

The Brexit clock started ticking when May triggered Article 50 in March. Taking six weeks out of the two-year Brexit negotiating window to conduct a general election was risky, as it has eaten into the time available to deal with the EU. Now, with so much uncertainty about how the next government will be formed, more time will inevitably be lost.

Daniel Fitzpatrick, lecturer in politics, Aston University

In an election called to secure a clear mandate for Brexit, the result is no obvious mandate for any party. The mandate for the Conservative version of hard Brexit is in tatters, while a second independence referendum in Scotland is moot given the swing away from the Scottish National Party towards the unionist parties – the Scottish Conservatives particularly.

Political commentators are fond of naming elections, as a shorthand for the dominant issue of the day: the 1983 “Falklands” election, the 2005 “Iraq” election. Psephologists will tell you that such retrospective rationalisations do little to convey the complexities of voting behaviour.

But, rarely has an election been characterised so one-dimensionally before the campaign even begun. Although labelled the “Brexit election” by the Conservatives, Theresa May did little to establish that narrative beyond her supposed leadership credentials, which, to put it mildly, faltered. It figured surprisingly little in the election campaigns of the other mainstream parties, except for the Liberal Democrats.

Taking a largely ambivalent stance on EU, Labour has gained Remain seats in London and the South East and retained and won back marginal Leave seats in the North. It looks like neither the so-called Leave or Remain vote offers a reliable indication of the new electoral map. It has figured in certain parts of the country, but nowhere near as decisive as imagined.

Scotland

William McDougall, lecturer in politics, Glasgow Caledonian University

The Conservative party are performing much better in Scotland than anywhere else. In that sense, Scotland is again having its own election, different from the rest of the UK. This is probably due to the fact that the Scottish Conservatives have been able to run a separate campaign, disassociating themselves from Theresa May and the poor campaign the Conservatives have run in the UK as a whole. They’ve been able to focus on an anti-independence, anti-SNP message. But that does mean that it’s less clear what else the Scottish Conservative MPs stand for. Once they start voting in Westminster, we’ll have a clearer idea of where they stand on other policies.

You’d be pleased, too. Jane Barlow/PA Images

The Scottish Conservatives could now play quite a vital role in the Westminster parliament. It could make all the difference for May as she attempts to hold on to power. It’s ironic: people often say that Scotland never gets to influence UK election results, and now it could be the Scottish Conservatives who keep the party on top. It puts their leader Ruth Davidson in a strong position within the Conservative party, although it might not have an impact on the direction of Brexit: the new Scottish Conservative MPs are likely to behave themselves in that respect.

Liberal Democrats

Matthew Cole, teaching fellow, department of history, University of Birmingham

The immediate evidence is that the two-party system has returned with a vengeance after a 30-year slumber, sweeping away UKIP and penning the Lib Dems back in their 2015 electoral ghetto.

Already three of the eight seats they won in 2015 have been lost, all in the north of England. Party leader Tim Farron was made to endure a recount in his own constituency, and it looks likely that the party’s overall share of the national vote has fallen back from its dismal 2015 low of 7.7%. The hope of reaching out to the 48% of Britons who voted to remain in the EU became a bitterly ironic dream, spiked by the triggering of Article 50 before the campaign; the plan for a second referendum has been marginalised politically.

There are silver linings to the cloud, however. The Liberal Democrats have established a core of representation in the capital and in Scotland, adding experienced and media-friendly figures to their enlarged parliamentary team – notably Vince Cable. Tim Farron can also take some credit for challenging and undermining the harsh version of Brexit which failed to secure Theresa May’s ambitions for a landslide majority. And the hung parliament which is emerging may be a productive environment in which to dilute that plan.

Compared to their highest hopes this election outcome must be disheartening for Liberal Democrat campaigners; but set against their worst fears it may in due course come to look like a stage in a process of consolidation.

Northern Ireland

John Garry, professor of political behaviour, Queen’s University Belfast

It seems that the two big parties have swept away all the others in Northern Ireland. Apart from an independent unionist candidate retaining her seat, the hardline unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), have had a great electoral night at the expense of the Ulster Unionist Party, which has lost its two seats. On the nationalist side, it has been a dreadful election for the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which has lost its three seats. The more hardline nationalists, Sinn Fein, have dramatically increased their support.

Nigel Dodds – leader of DUP in Westminster – is onto a winner. Niall Carson/PA Images

With the cross-party Alliance also winning no seats, the overall picture emerging is of a more polarised politics in Northern Ireland. This bodes ill for the kind of compromise and conciliation that will be needed to re-establish a power-sharing government – a process that was effectively put on hold once Theresa May called this snap Westminster election.

It is ironic that both the DUP and Sinn Fein, which are finding it difficult to form a government in Northern Ireland, were regarded as potentially key players in the election night commentary on government formation at Westminster. Would Sinn Fein change its policy of abstention and possibly prop up a Jeremy Corbyn premiership? “No”, was the quick response from the Sinn Fein leadership. It’s more plausible that the DUP could play a crucial role in sustaining a Conservative administration.

Neil Matthews, lecturer in British politics, University of Bristol

This election has arguably produced the best of results for Northern Ireland. The granite-hard Brexit promised by Theresa May – a scenario which would have disproportionately severe consequences for the region – has been effectively shelved.

In the weeks before the election both the European Union and UK government were at pains to stress the importance of Northern Ireland to the Brexit negotiations, declaring it a “first order” issue. Both agreed that any deal should see as “soft” a border as possible between Northern Ireland (i.e. the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (i.e. the EU). The hard gains of the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement were not to be trampled on by Brexit.

Those hard gains were, however, widely seen to be under threat from May’s Brexit plan. If she returned from Brussels without a deal – a scenario countenanced by the Conservative manifesto – then any bespoke arrangement for Northern Ireland would have inevitably been chucked out with the bath water. With this election result a Brexit deal that is sympathetic to the unique needs of Northern Ireland remains very much alive.

And, of course, Northern Ireland’s hand in the Brexit negotiations is likely to be strengthened further by the makeup of the next parliament and the precarious position of the Conservative government. Short of a majority, the government could well strike-up an arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Those ten DUP MPs – a team of canny and battle-hardened negotiators – would inevitably look to extract a great deal from the Tories in return for their support. Among other things, this shopping list would include a “frictionless” Irish border, as well as no internal UK border (between Britain and Northern Ireland).

The DUP’s election campaign promise was “to make sure Northern Ireland gets the best Brexit deal”. This result goes some way to ensuring that.

Wales

Laura McAllister, professor of public policy and the governance of Wales, University of Cardiff

Labour has cemented its grip on Wales with three important gains. Voters mainly opted for one of the two main UK-wide parties, with the combined total vote share for Labour and the Conservatives at 84% – the highest since the 1960s.

Labour’s share of the vote increased by 12% points, making something of a mockery of the very early polls, which suggested that the Conservatives would win Wales for the first time since the middle of the 19th century. The Conservative vote was up 6%, but it is seats that count and the party lost three.

Labour still lost the election overall, for the the third time in a row, but once again it won Wales convincingly, underlining the strength of its reach and the depth of its dominance. It was an unmitigated disaster for the Liberal Democrats, which lost their single seat in Ceredigon to Plaid Cymru. The Liberal Democrats now have no representation in Wales for the first time in the party’s history.

Plaid Cyrmu’s overall vote share was down 2% points to 10%, but with four MPs it gained its highest ever number of seats. Despite disappointments in the southern valleys and Ynys Mon, Leanne Wood’s leadership of the party was probably saved by the bell with the Ceredigon result.

The Midlands

Parveen Akhtar, lecturer in political science, Aston University

The Tories had a rough night in the Midlands, and they won’t have been expecting one. Their chances looked very different for them in May, when former John Lewis boss Andy Street, won a stunning victory against Labour’s Siôn Simon to become West Midlands Mayor. On a low turnout of 26.7%, Street won 50.4% against Simon’s 49.6% – hardly a thrashing, but a stunning win nonetheless in traditional Labour territory.

Perfectly logical then that Conservatives should target key marginal seats in Birmingham, birthplace of Nick Timothy, one of the two brains that make up Team May. But in the end, as across the country, the Conservatives’ efforts simply didn’t pay off.

Labour held on to key seats in Edgbaston, Northfield and Erdington. In Edgbaston, Preet Gill made history by becoming the first female Sikh MP in the UK; she won 24,124 votes, increasing Labour’s 2015 majority by 10%. She takes over from pro-Brexit Labour MP Gisela Stuart, who had held the seat since 1997.

Other big stories from the Midlands include Labour’s capture of Warwick and Leamington, a bellweather constituency where Matt Western won 25,227 votes – a 1,206 majority over the Conservative candidate. The Tories can draw some small consolation from unseating Labour in Walsall North; they also retained Nuneaton and Stoke-on-Trent South and comfortably sailed to victory in Solihull. But as per the national results, tonight was clearly Labour’s night.

Vote share

James Tilley, professor of politics, University of Oxford

Poll leads for the Conservatives ahead of the election varied enormously. Much of the variation, although by no means all, has been due to the way that the pollsters predicted people’s likelihood to turnout.

How did you vote? oscepa/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The polls with the highest leads for the Conservatives tended to predict low voting rates among younger people and people in working class jobs. We’ve seen this pattern of non-voting for the past few elections, arguably because these groups had become disillusioned with Labour. The polls with the lowest leads for the Conservatives assumed that these two groups would turn out to vote at higher levels than in 2015. The argument here was that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is a more attractive proposition to more economically left-wing people. So who was right?

Obviously, we won’t know the actual result and we won’t know exact rates of turnout by age and social class for several months until the British Election Survey reports back, but the exit poll does seem to suggest that young people have turned out in larger numbers than at the past few elections.

Generally campaigns are not thought to matter enormously, but this may be the exception that proves the rule. Labour has evidently either converted some people who said they would vote Conservative a few months ago, or mobilised people who said that they wouldn’t vote.

It’s likely that both conversion and particularly mobilisation have been higher among younger voters. While it’s not a successful night for Labour in that it is still predicted to have 50 fewer seats than the Conservatives, at this stage it appears a clear success for the Labour campaign strategy.

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