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The shocking UK election results, explained

Prime Minister Theresa May has just made a blunder for the ages.

Protests As The British Prime Minister Triggers Article 50 (Carl Court/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

LONDON — When the projections first came out showing Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May losing control of Parliament on Thursday night, the surprise at the watch party I attended in central London was palpable. People wandered around the basement of a fancy building at the London School of Economics, staring at televisions blaring the BBC with mouths open in either elation or despair, depending on who they supported.

The full results on Friday morning show that the shock was entirely warranted.

May’s Tories lost 12 seats in Parliament, when just two months ago they reasonably hoped to gain nearly 100. They’re still the largest party — having won 318 out of 650 total seats — but no longer hold a majority.

In the British system, this kind of situation — where no one party controls most of Parliament — is called a “hung Parliament.” Typically, it means that the largest party keeps control of the government, but cannot pass any major laws — a big deal when she’s attempting to work out a complex Brexit deal with the European Union.

So May is likely to stay prime minister, but will likely become an increasingly ineffectual unpopular one as she tries to navigate the country through the complex Brexit process. That’s especially the case since this election didn’t have to happen — the next one was scheduled to happen in three years, but May decided to have call one anyway in a bid to increase her majority.

What hubris. And she’s already facing calls to resign as a result.

Meanwhile, the opposition Labour Party, led by left-wing firebrand Jeremy Corbyn, surged — gaining 29 seats in Parliament. Corbyn’s Labour, once written off by most of the British media, managed to mobilize a huge coalition of voters who don’t typically turn out to back his unabashedly socialist platform. Even the Labour faithful didn’t expect Corbyn’s strategy to work so well.

"I am gobsmacked. Everyone is,” a senior Labour source told the Financial Times’ Jim Pickard.

Much remains unclear about the election, both its causes and consequences. But most observers agree on one result: The election is a direct repudiation of May’s approach to the Brexit negotiations with the European Union.

There are many different ways the UK could formally leave the EU, either retaining ties or cutting many. May was pushing for a “harder” Brexit, which meant seriously limiting trade and immigration with the EU. This seems far less likely now that UK voters have delivered such a decisive blow for the Tories.

“I don’t think she can go forward [with] ‘we make the Brexit policy on our own, we don’t consult with anyone else,’” says Patrick Dunleavy, a professor of political science at the LSE.

The stakes are very, very high. The nature of deal the UK strikes with the EU will shape the lives of millions, be they EU migrants or Britons who rely on doing business for their livelihood. The future of EU is also increasingly important for the rest of the world amidst a shakeup of global institutions created by the presidency of one Donald J. Trump.

Everything we thought we knew about UK politics has changed — with potentially massive consequences both inside the UK and out.

What the results mean

General Election 2017 - Comings And Goings At Conservative Party HQ
Theresa May.
(Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

To understand the full significance of the results, and why they're so stunning, you need to understand a little bit about how the British system works.

Unlike America’s presidential system, where the chief executive is directly selected by the voters, the British system is parliamentary: Whichever party wins a majority of seats in the UK House of Commons, Britain’s more powerful equivalent of the House of Representatives, gets to pick the prime minister. Members of Parliament (MPs), like members of the US House, represent specific places (called constituencies) and stand for election in them.

Before the election, Theresa May’s Conservatives controlled 330 of the House of Commons’ 650 seats. This was a very narrow majority, which makes it hard for her to pass major legislation. (Think how much trouble Republicans are having getting an Obamacare replacement plan through.)

Now she has no majority at all. The Conservatives will control 318 seats, seven shy of an outright majority. This is a situation called a “hung Parliament” (think hung jury).

That means May will need to form a coalition with another party, and many of them ended the elections stronger than when they had started them. Those parties include:

  • Labour, which will control 261 seats, up from 232 but still 65 away from what it would have needed to have a majority of its own.
  • The Scottish National Party, a party pushing for Scotland to secede from the UK, which will control 35 seats.
  • The Liberal Democrats (LibDems), an anti-Brexit and pro-Europe center-left party, which will control 12 seats.
  • The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a right-wing Northern Irish party that opposes the Northern Irish independence movement, which will have 10 seats.
  • Twelve more seats will go to assorted other third parties, and one constituency (Kensington) is still too close to call.

The way to resolve a hung Parliament is to for a larger party to make a deal with a smaller one to get majority support. Legally, the party that gets the largest number of votes will get the first crack at making such a deal. And the Conservatives appear to have struck one with the DUP.

“It is clear that only the Conservative and Unionist Party has the legitimacy to [form a government],” May said in a statement Friday afternoon UK time.

This makes sense. The DUP is extremely conservative — they’re one of the few parties in Europe that’s home to climate change deniers. They also hate Corbyn personally: He had, in the past, expressed sympathy with the separatist Irish Republican Army (IRA), a group responsible for a great number of deadly terrorist bombings.

“We want there to be a government. We have worked well with May. The alternative is intolerable,” a DUP source told the Guardian. “For as long as Corbyn leads Labour, we will ensure there’s a Tory PM.”

There are basically two options for how such a deal would work. The first is that the Tories and DUP can form a formal coalition, in which they would share control over the government. This typically doesn’t work out well for the smaller party: They tend to get pushed around by their bigger partner, and lose their core supporters as a result.

This is what happened in the last hung Parliament, after the 2010 election: The LibDems formed a coalition with the Tories, got very little out of it, and then got pummeled in the 2015 election.

But judging from what we’re hearing from both parties, it looks like they’ll pursue another option — what’s called a minority government.

In this scenario, the Tories run the government without majority support in Parliament. In this case, the DUP supports the Tory government from the outside — they don’t have any ministers in the cabinet, but still would vote to keep the Tories in power and perhaps for some legislation the two parties can agree on.

To make this happen, May would need to present her platform in a formal address — called a Queen’s speech — and then win a majority vote in Parliament of “confidence” in their leadership. With the DUP’s 10 votes, they have a mathematical certainty of winning it.

“Queen’s speech, vote of confidence, and then they’re off,” as Tony Travers, director of the London School of Economics’ Institute of Public Affairs, puts it.

In this scenario, the DUP only commits to supporting the Tories’ basic control of government. They wouldn’t necessarily back any legislation the government proposes, which is why this is so much worse for the Tories than even the slim majority they had before the vote.

If for some reason the DUP-Conservative agreement falls apart, Labour will get a chance to form a government — but the votes don’t seem to be there. If that too fails, then Britain will likely need to hold another election, which would be absolute chaos. Both the Tories and the DUP don’t want that, so the agreement will probably hold.

This means Theresa May is likely to remain as prime minister.

Though her party is furious with her over the poor election results, it’s clear that she’s refusing to resign. And other prominent Conservative politicians may not risk challenging her for leadership at this particularly sensitive juncture.

“The Conservative Party is famously ruthless,” Travers says. “[But they’ll want her] to see Brexit through.”

Yet it’s worth being cautious. If this election and the Brexit referendum taught us anything, it’s that predicting the future of British politics is a very, very tough game.

The election was a Conservative gamble that backfired — badly

Labour Party Herald Election Gains At Party HQ
Jeremy Corbyn.
(Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

The deep irony of these results, and the key reason why Tories are furious at May, is that the devastating election didn't have to have happened. In fact, there wasn’t supposed to be a British election until 2020.

May called an early election on April 18, something PMs can do in parliamentary systems, because she had good reason to believe she’d win by a massive margin. Labour was down by about 16 points in the national polls; Corbyn had a net-negative approval rating among voters from his own party.

The stated rationale May gave the British public was that negotiating Brexit with the EU required a more unified Parliament. At the time, the Tories had a 17-seat majority in parliament).

"I have concluded the only way to guarantee certainty and security for years ahead is to hold this election," she said in in a televised statement explaining her decision. “Division in [Parliament] will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit."

This gamble, we now know, backfired horrifically. And it’s mostly May’s own fault.

The key turning came on May 19 — when the Conservatives released their manifesto, the British equivalent of a party platform. That day, the Conservatives led Labour by 47.2 to 31 — a 16.2-point margin. The margin started dropping almost immediately after that day, falling more than 6 full points, down to roughly 10.1 (44.8 to 34.7).

The key problem with the Conservative manifesto was a proposal to require individuals who need in-home support services, like a nurse, to pay for these services on their own if their combined savings and assets, including property, total 100,000 pounds (roughly $130,000) or higher. Currently, the UK’s ”social care” system pays for this kind of in-home assistance for many more people than would be covered under the Conservatives’ plan.

The proposal, which reportedly was added to the manifesto at the last minute, was an immediate disaster. Critics dubbed it the “dementia tax,” as many people who rely on social care are elderly individuals afflicted with dementia. It came across as unnecessarily cruel, once again playing into a longstanding sense that the Conservatives aren’t really interested in helping Britain’s most vulnerable.

The criticism of the “dementia tax” was so overwhelming that, three days later, it was removed from the Conservative manifesto. This actually managed to make things worse: It suggested that May, who had been running on the slogan “strong and stable,” wasn’t actually to be trusted.

“We saw favorability for Theresa May crash that weekend, after the social care fiasco — and Jeremy Corbyn’s jump,” Ben Walker, founder of the poll analysis site BritainElects, says. “The Tory campaign has been perceived to have been bad — and, I think, it has been bad.”

It might have been possible for May to salvage this debacle if she sold voters on her own personal qualities. But she was horrifically wooden on the campaign trail; the word “robotic” was commonly used in the British press to describe her performance. She didn’t really speak to large audiences and rallies, and refused to participate in a debate among leadership candidates.

“May gives the impression that she takes it all for granted ... that she’s not going to have the voters interfere,” Sir Robert Worcester, senior adviser to the ISPOS-MORI polling group, said. “It’s resented.”

Corbyn, by contrast, held big rallies showcasing his ability to work a crowd. The Labour leader actually performed relatively well in high-profile media interviews, like a live grilling from popular TV host Jeremy Paxman. This steady performance in the face of Conservative blunders made him seem like a fresher choice than most people thought.

“For Jeremy Corbyn, a lot of the members of the public had this perception of him as a complete disaster,” Clarkson says. “He’s outperformed the really, really low expectations.”

There’s also some reason to believe that Corbyn’s ideas may have energized new voters.

Corbyn is a socialist, a kind of politician that hadn’t led Labour since the 1980s. He is far to the left of Bernie Sanders: Corbyn has proposed renationalizing Britain’s rail system, abolishing tuition for British universities, massively hiking taxes, capping CEO salaries, and imposing rent controls to deal with Britain's affordable housing problem. He's even suggested reopening the coal mines that used to be a big part of Britain's economy.

Initially, this appeared to be a problem for him. It seemed like his low favorability ratings before the election were the price he was paying for being well to the left of the modern British mainstream.

But polling cited by Worcester and others suggests that many of his ideas were ended up being popular, particularly among voters ages 18 to 24. If this is right, this could explain why there was such a surge in youth turnout — a surge that appeared to be responsible for much of Corbyn’s gains:

We can’t be sure that this theory is true: We’ll need a lot more data and fine-grained analysis to be certain about this kind of result. Already, there appear to be regional patterns — for instance, Labour performing stronger in the north of England than expected — that require deeper and more targeted analysis.

“It may be all sorts of different things going into different mixes in different places,” cautions Travers.

But the strength of Corbyn among young voters is certainly one very plausible explanation for the election result given the huge youth turnout, which is hard to ascribe solely to people hating Theresa May.

The biggest impact will be on Brexit — with consequences that effect millions of lives

Protests As The British Prime Minister Triggers Article 50
Anti-Brexit demonstration in London.
(Carl Court/Getty Images)

Normally, British elections don’t have major stakes for the rest of the world. But this one is different — and Brexit is the most obvious reason why.

The Tories have taken a harsh anti-immigration position, calling for no more than 100,000 people to be admitted to Britain per year. For this to happen, they need to end the free flow of people between the European Union and Britain currently mandated by EU law. Three million EU citizens currently live in the UK; 250,000 EU citizens moved to the UK last year alone.

The problem, though, is that the EU is unlikely to agree to this and continue to allow the UK access to the EU’s common market, which grants all EU countries privileged trade status with each other. The UK depends on trade with the EU: About 44 percent of its exports go to the rest of Europe. Getting starkly cut off from the common market could, as a result, tank the UK economy — and likely damage the EU’s as well.

That scenario, the so-called “hard Brexit,” will happen automatically unless the EU and UK come to softer terms. Preelection May appeared very comfortable with it, judging by her campaign rhetoric: “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she’s said repeatedly.

Assuming Theresa May remains prime minister, she’s going to have to soften her line.

A huge chunk of Parliament, including many of members in her own party, were already leery about the prospect of a hard Brexit when they had a majority. Now that the election has come and gone, and voters rejected May’s request for a hard Brexit mandate, she simply won’t have the support to take such a hard line.

“At any point, a tiny number of either Conservative or Democratic elite could say no,” Travers says. “This will weaken her negotiations with the EU ... they will now know they could push further, hard — and she would have to give.”

The German government, a key player on the EU side of the negotiations, wasted no time in signaling that they understand this dynamic.

“Theresa May said she wanted a strong majority for Britain’s exit from the EU. But she didn’t get that,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said in a Friday morning statement. “The message of the election is: Have fair discussions with the EU and think about whether it’s actually good for Britain to leave the EU in this way.”

The result, then, is that May’s gamble for a hard Brexit mandate may end up leading to a much softer Brexit — one that has a much less negative impact on the free movement of people throughout Europe and the British economy than observers had worried.

How’s that for irony.

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