Views

Theresa May is right to stay - for now

Britain's prime minister now faces uphill task of commanding a majority to tackle Brexit talks

British Prime Minister Theresa May got into her armoured Jaguar mid-morning on Friday and, with her husband Philip, was driven to Buckingham Palace, where she told the Queen that she would form a new government. The Queen, as she has done for over six decades, agreed with her Prime Minister.

Mrs May returned to Downing Street where, looking fresh after a hard night, announced that she planned to form a government to lead Britain forward.

"What the country needs more than ever is certainty," she said, "and having secured the largest number of votes and the greatest number of seats in the general election, it is clear that only the Conservative and Unionist Party has the legitimacy and ability to provide that certainty by commanding a majority in the House of Commons."

Not a word in the speech about the drop in the Conservative vote, nor of a campaign, commanded by herself and her aides, which failed to ignite and certainly nothing on the strong increase in the Labour vote led by Mr Jeremy Corbyn, a man she has mocked incessantly.

Mrs May has shown remarkable coolness in the aftermath of what the media was screaming to be a disaster. Wholly in tune with a woman with an aversion to populist gestures, an insatiable appetite for work, papers and practicalities.

And in this she was right. She must stay on, must form a government which can frame a negotiating strategy, must calm the febrile political atmosphere.

And since that was the right thing to do, she seems to have thought, best do it without a display either of disappointment or false humility. Out of step with today's demand, especially in the media, for contrition, apology and even tears.

CONSEQUENCES

For all her cool, the result was a blow, with large consequences.

As with the surprise Brexit vote a year ago and the election of United States President Donald Trump, this election saw an apparent no-hoper, Mr Corbyn - a man who for all of his political life has supported the far left, even militant movements, consistently voted against his party and bitterly opposed the European Union (EU) and Nato - come close to winning.

His reconstruction of himself as an amiable man, who had spoken to groups like Hamas only in the interests of achieving peace, was a media triumph.

For the UK, a dreary season of uncertainty, weak government and political manoeuvring is certain. The results showed Conservatives winning 318 seats in a House of Commons where 326 seats are needed for the barest of majorities. They are the winners and losers at the same time - in the lead but not in power.

Labour, with 262 seats, is similarly both a loser and winner: in second place but with a better result than expected.

Most of the other parties - Liberal Democrats (12 seats), Scottish Nationalists (35), Welsh Nationalists (4) and the Greens (1) - are broadly liberal-leftist and anti-Brexit. They could form part of a "progressive coalition", an outcome which Labour supporters and members of Parliament were proposing as the results became clear.

If the Conservatives can count on the 10 seats won in Northern Ireland by the Democratic Unionist Party, they would have a fragile majority. Indeed, Northern Ireland might save Mrs May's Conservatives in another way if the republican party Sinn Fein follows party policy by not taking up its seven seats. This will give a slightly plumper cushion to a Tory majority.

Mrs May, a leader much diminished, now bears the burden of entrenching a majority able to confront the larger challenge of negotiating Brexit before she goes, either through her own resignation or a successful challenge from a party colleague. Mr Boris Johnson, the jaunty foreign secretary, is the bookmakers' favourite. If they are right, Mr Trump will have a competitor for scandal headlines.

The Brexit discussions are due to start on June 19. When and if that happens, those, mainly in the Conservative party, who want as complete a break as possible with the EU, will find they are much weakened.

This was a complex result: The Conservative vote actually increased, even as seats fell, which did not cancel out the pro-Brexit referendum of last June. But it is likely to mean that Britain will now seek a softer exit taking back government powers from the EU while still trying to retain access to the single market.

For that, there will need to be a deal on the free movement of labour within the Union - one of the main reasons a majority of the British voted to leave.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow.

electionunited kingdomGovernment