Some things are clear as the smoke begins to drift away after the election – more can be sensed as dim shapes in the murk which, for the moment, remain more hinted at than certain.
Here is what can solidly be said:
This was the most unusual and unpredictable election of our time.
This may indicate that last Thursday presages a real change to the structures and habits which have dominated our elections for the last 30 years;
Most pundits claim that politics has reverted to the old two-party system of the immediate post-war period. Others (myself included) disagree. Though the results have a retro look about them, there is no evidence that Britain below the surface has returned to the bi-polar politics of our fathers and grandfathers. The multiplicity of opinions, aspirations, wishes, ambitions and world views which are so much a function of this pluralistic internet age, remain today as much a feature of life in Britain as they are in any other Western democracy.
The election results were binary, not because Britain has suddenly become binary, but because of the peculiar overlay of the Brexit in-out choice. Further, those who represent the now voiceless centre in politics failed to reach out beyond their huddled tribes with a proposition capable of motivating the moderate voices in Britain in the way that Jeremy Corbyn did for his neo-socialism.
Mrs May was widely praised before the election for miraculously healing the chasm everyone knows lies at the heart the Tory party. But British elections have an extraordinary habit of finding out our leaders’ flaws and weaknesses. In what will go down as the most catastrophic election campaign in history for a ruling Party, our Prime Minister for all her virtues of straight-forwardness and patriotism, was revealed, not as the re-incarnation of Margaret Thatcher, but as brittle, bad tempered, “tunnel visioned” and extraordinarily insensitive to her own deficiencies and the limits of her power.
Nothing better illustrates these personal faults than her decision yesterday to try to hang on to power when her continuation in Downing Street is now, not, as she preposterously claims, the means to see us through this crisis, but the greatest single road block to that happening. As the largest party, the Conservatives’ right to form the next Government is clearly established under the practices of our Constitution (our essential sheet-anchor in stormy times such as these). But the Tories go beyond the sensible limits of those rights if they think they can propose to our Parliament (or should suggest to our Queen) a legitimate Government headed by a Prime Minster who has now, not a shred of democratic legitimacy left.
Mrs May has done her country, her Party, and herself no favours by trying to hang on. On the surface this appears to be an act which combines wilfulness, irrationality and the fact that she and the small cabal around her have completely lost touch. But is there another explanation for her seemingly perplexing and self-damaging behaviour? Could her Cabinet colleagues, perhaps headed by the ambitious Philip Hammond, have persuaded her that, since a Party election for yet another PM unelected by the country, would be damaging, divisive and destabilising, she must hang on until they find someone by acclamation to crown seamlessly in her place, Mr Hammond himself perhaps?
One thing, however, is beyond speculation. The yawning divisions in the Tory party are now laid bare. The humiliation (and danger) of begging for support from the DUP will go unnoticed and unfelt by the hard-right, hard-Brexiteers who now dominate the Mrs May’s proto-UKIP Tory Party. For them the DUP are soul-mates in policy, attitude and world view; they are welcome re-enforcements to the right-wing cause – and perhaps even to an historical return to the good old days of the Conservative and Unionist Party. Did you notice Mrs May used just this phrase?
But for the left of the Tory Party (as also for all who recognise the dangers to the Northern Ireland peace process), playing hard-line Ulster unionism into our already highly volatile post-election political crisis, will be total anathema. Many of us have long speculated that, what Robert Peel called the “battle for the soul” which split the Tories over the Corn Laws 200 years ago, is being replicated by the issue of Europe today. We are about to discover if this is so, as Tory leaders try desperately to stop the bloodletting from the wounds laid bare by Mrs May’s leadership and the pressures of a Tory/DUP partnership in a hung Parliament. Ruth Davidson the heroine leader of the Scottish Conservatives and Anna Soubry the narrowly elected Tory MP for Broxtowe appear as harbingers for this.
It is not in any way to diminish Mr Corbyn’s remarkable successes in this election campaign (and before) to warn that, nevertheless for Labour, these results flattered to deceive. Many of us have been warning for two or more years that Jeremy Corbyn (like Bernie Sanders in the US) would have much wider traction than most of the tabloids and all the Tories hoped. He has an attractive, straightforward and decent personality which has been re-enforced by an appealingly under-stated public style (in sharp contrast to Mrs May). The Corbyn team fought a campaign which showed real mastery of the arts of mobilisation and sectoral politics, especially when it came to using social media and targeting the youth vote.
One thing will not be the same again in future elections: Political parties will never again ignore the young vote or treat them with complacency. This is Mr Corbyn’s permanent legacy and it is a proud one.
Nevertheless, the hard fact is that even at the top of their game and despite the manifest and many targets presented to them by Mrs May and the Tories these last seven years, Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party still could not win – or even get close to winning. This is not a definitive verdict – and does not necessarily mean they cannot win in the future. It is only to observe that, despite all Labour’s successes in the last five weeks, there is no evidence yet that with these policies and these people, Labour can carry the wider country in the future. Indeed, there is much evidence that they cannot. This presents moderate Labour MPs with a difficult dilemma. Do they, like Chukka Ummuna, gulp down as much humiliating crow as necessary to re-ingratiate themselves with those they have excoriated, in order to secure a front bench position in a Party which, all rational argument says, will never have power? Or do they, like Chris Lesley tell the truth that Labour is still far away from power and likely to remain so, unless and until it can make a wider appeal to the centre ground.
This election has plunged our country into a crisis no-one saw coming. Finding a way through is going to prove very difficult, especially given the deep polarisation of our politics, which, despite the ballot box results, still imposes a binary choice on a nation which remains at its heart deeply pluralist, multi-layered and multi-faceted. Nowhere is this more powerfully or painfully illustrated than in the most important single fact of the 2017 election; that the moderate, decent, progressive centre of British politics – the place where elections up to now have always been won and lost – now lies empty, voiceless and waiting for someone to claim it.