Theresa May just damaged herself, her party, and her country - she won't last long

A Tory leader called a vote and left Britain in turmoil - haven't we been here before?

Five biggest takeaways from the 2017 UK general electionNewsweek

An interesting message from a friend in Albania, in the midst of its own general election right now – 'I'm confused. It is looking like the winners have lost, and the losers have won.'

Certainly, if you had been watching the TV news through the early hours with the sound down, you'd have seen Theresa May long-faced, unsmiling, for once close to expressing emotion as she spoke, and with the haunted look of someone who had just taken a phone call that her pet cat had been run over by her bulletproof Jag; meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn was bathed in smiles and adoration, the crowds that flocked to him during the campaign continuing to do so. And if you then turned the sound on, the talk was of her being under pressure to resign, him having his position as Labour leader strengthened.

That, I explained to my friend in Tirana, is all about expectations. Theresa May was expected to waltz her way to a landslide which would give her the Parliamentary backing needed to force through her hard Brexit interpretation of last June's referendum. Jeremy Corbyn was expected to fall flat on his face. Neither of those things happened, and how.

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The pollster who said on live radio a couple of weeks ago that if Theresa May did not get back with an increased majority there would be a 'mass suicide of pollsters' will be hoping nobody reminds him of what he said. Oh, I just did. I certainly don't want him or anyone else to take their own life. But I do hope that when the next election comes – and I suspect it won't be long in coming – we can finally stop allowing the polls to drive so much of the debate.

The polls being so wrong, again, and the main parties defying expectations in different ways, are both factors that underline the defining nature of our politics and of our world more widely – volatility. That volatility is going in just one direction. And it means anything can happen.

Might Jeremy Corbyn yet become Prime Minister? It is not inconceivable. Might Brexit not happen? That is possible too, especially when people realise the extra spending they want on public services is unlikely to be there as the economy shrinks. Might Theresa May be gone within days? Yes. Might she survive? Yes. But can she provide strong and stable government? Can she hell? The Queen has met every Prime Minister since Winston Churchill. But as Mrs May trotted in to see her today, has she ever seen one so diminished by the consequence of her own actions?

Constitutionally she is the Prime Minister, and with the support of the DUP she can indeed form a government, as she just said she would. But as my Albanian friend spotted, authority is not all about the numbers. Authority is one of the most powerful currencies any political leader has. She has lost more than is remotely survivable for anything other than the short term.

An election that was frankly struggling to get that much attention outside the UK, certainly by comparison with the recent French Presidential elections, has suddenly taken Britain back to the top of the agenda for leaders around Europe. They look on with a mix of scorn and bemusement at the political wound one of their number has just inflicted upon herself, her party, and most significantly her country, which is giving off every sign of being in something of a mess.

Let's just stand back and reflect on how we got to this. Tory Prime Minister 1, David Cameron, concedes a referendum on Europe as a way of dealing with the right wing of his Tory Party and the rise of Ukip. It helps him win an election. The referendum happens. He loses. He goes.

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Tory Prime Minister 2 takes over. She takes the referendum result and turns it into what becomes known as a hard Brexit strategy. She rules out a snap election. She triggers Article 50 so firing the starting gun on two years of negotiations.

She looks at the polls and decides to have the snap election after all. She decides, based in part on polls and in part on inhaling the propaganda of a right wing media portraying her as a modern Boudicca, to make the campaign all about her, the first known case of seeking to develop a personality cult around someone famed in Westminster for the lack of personality. She gives false reasons for having the election, claiming it is all about strengthening her hand in the Brexit negotiations rather than exploiting Labour weakness. She seeks to avoid debate, avoid all but hand-picked members of the public, rely on the robotic repetition of vacuous sound-bites about being strong and stable and the alternative being a coalition of chaos a bit like the one she is now trying to put together. She launches a manifesto with barely developed policy on social care which she is forced to junk within days. When terrorism strikes, she handles the first attack in Manchester reasonably well, but in an overly political response to the second attack in London she manages to put her own record as Home Secretary centre stage.

Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn campaigns well, fires up the young people who felt so let down by the result of the referendum and this time decide to get more involved, puts forward a manifesto that shifts the debate in the country well away from Brexit and instead onto austerity and the need for greater investment in the public realm. And those Labour MPs who are wary of Corbyn as leader fight their own campaigns as local MPs, some of them spectacularly successful, that too part of the volatility defining our politics right now.

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Mrs May wore Thatcher blue this morning to visit the Queen, rather than the Donald Trump Rose Garden outfit she put on for the count in Maidenhead. But perhaps she needs to give up on the idea she could be the next Thatcher, and start to model herself on Angela Merkel. The German Chancellor has governed effectively without a majority, in a very different system, for years. She does it by building consensus around the big arguments and taking people with her. Brexit is the most difficult and complicated set of negotiations any Prime Minister has had to deal with since the second world war. She needs to stop thinking only she knows how and involve people across her party and across the spectrum.

The question is whether Mrs May has the personal, psychological and political capacity for change and adaptation. Her statement outside Downing Street suggests not. Hard Brexit remains the plan. It is business as usual, and it is not going to work.


Alastair Campbell is a British strategist and writer, best known for his work as Director of Communications and Strategy for Prime Minister Tony Blair between 1994 and 2003. He is the author of 12 books, the latest of which is Outside Inside, his diaries from 2003-2005. He is Ambassador for mental health campaign Time to Change. Follow : @campbellclaret


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