Theresa May Stands Defiant in a Defeat of Her Own Making
Prime Minister Theresa May dug in her trademark kitten heels on Friday, rejecting calls to resign after a stunning political miscalculation resulted in her Conservative party losing its majority in the Thursday snap election that May herself called. Amid demands to step down, May’s office said that the prime minister will seek Queen Elizabeth’s permission to form a coalition government on Friday, having agreed in principle to a deal with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party.
While May’s Conservative Party was the single biggest winner, it failed the pass the vote threshold to ensure a parliamentary majority. The outcome capped a dramatic election cycle that saw May’s party squander the 20-percentage point lead it held over Labour when campaigning started. And it was a outright rebuke of May’s leadership, as the prime minister had made the contest deeply personal.
“The choice facing the British people at the general election in less than a fortnight is clear and the stakes could not be higher,” May’s official Facebook page posted on May 28. “[W]ho do you trust to get the best deal for Brexit and protect our security—me or [Labour leader] Jeremy Corbyn?
Subscribe to The World’s Most Powerful Women, Fortune’s daily must-read for global businesswomen.
May effectively got her answer on Thursday, as Corbyn’s Labour party fared far better than expected, landing in second place, with 261 seats as one constituency remained undeclared mid-day Friday.
May’s defeat was wholly of her own making.
In April, she called for the contest that put all 650 seats in the House of Commons up for grabs three years ahead of schedule. The move came as a surprise since May had, on at least seven previous occasions, vowed to do no such thing. Yet the logic of the decision was undeniable; polls showed May’s Conservative party with a 21-point lead over its main rival, the Labour party. It was recipe for a landslide that would give May more leeway to negotiate as she entered Brexit talks with the European Union.
Plus, May herself was popular, having stepped into Britain’s post-Brexit leadership vacuum as an unflappable—if unflamboyant—leader. She seemed so unassailable that “Theresa May’s Team” overshadowed Conservative party branding on some campaign signage.
But after May set the election in motion, her party’s comfortable lead dwindled, resulting in an outcome that is exactly the opposite of what she’d hoped for. Her party failed to maintain its majority, leading to a hung Parliament and weakening her grip on power.
The result is due—in part—to May’s own uninspired campaign style. She appeared uncomfortable when talking with voters and came off as robotic for repeating her “strong and stable” tagline as if it were a mantra. She was also a no-show at a televised debate, which prompted a giant chicken to accompany her on some campaign stops.
Her biggest misstep came when the Conservatives introduced a new approach to caring for the elderly. It was immediately dubbed the “dementia tax” because it seemed to disadvantage patients with long-term illnesses that require years of care. The backlash was so intense that May walked back the proposal, which, subsequently, sparked accusations of flip-flopping.
All the while, Britain endured three deadly terrorist attacks in as many months. Those tragedies, rather than prompting voters to rally around May, ignited close scrutiny of her record as home secretary. She held the job for six years before becoming prime minister in July, and oversaw a reduction in police forces, including armed officers, during that time.
At the very least, the election outcome has weakened May’s grip on power 10 days before Brexit talks with the EU are scheduled to start. But the self-inflicted blow May endured Thursday night was so devastating that she may end up paying the ultimate political price.