Historians searching for a pithy, acidic analogy with which to condemn Mrs. May’s campaign will likely have to search outside of British politics. It was just a few weeks ago that the Conservative government looked set to return engorged. Back then, it seemed, a landslide was all but inexorable. This morning the Tories are impuissant and tainted. In gaining affirmation on a grandiose scale, Mrs. May had visions of becoming a modern Richard the Lionheart. Instead, she is soon to be reviled.
As she surveys the wreckage she has wrought, she will come to ask, “What if?”: “What if I had waited a little longer?”; “What if I had run a good campaign?”; “What if I’d been grateful for the chances I’d been given?” Already, the spin has begun. “It’s not that bad,” the Tory party is insisting. “We can still form a government. We can still move forward.” Perhaps, and perhaps. But that’s rather beside the point. At the expense of all else, the Conservatives had asked for a mandate: to govern, to negotiate, to consider, to decide. At the expense of everyone else, Mrs. May had demanded an endorsement. Neither was forthcoming. Had the campaign been about taxes or schools or the future of Britain’s ports, the mouthpieces’ jobs would be easier. “It’s a divided country,” they could say, “but we still won.” But the election was not about those things. “Theresa,” promised the literature, “is the only one who can stand up for Britain.” And the chorus replied, “No she’s not.”
No amount of sugar can sweeten this news. It is disaster for the British Right. Brexit is imperiled; the Left is emboldened; and Jeremy Corbyn — an IRA-sympathizing socialist throwback — appears credible as a leader. Europe, with good reason, is ecstatic. This was not, as some have claimed, a “second Brexit referendum” — that is wishful thinking, or opportunism, or both — but it has nevertheless provided the Remainers and the Europhiles with a chance to strengthen their hand. When, in two weeks, Mrs. May walks into the talks, she will hobble rather than stride, and her entrance will be marked by chattering and by sniping both at home and abroad. She said during the campaign that that was no way to run a country. She was right.