Oh what a night… and what it means

Theresa May asked the country for a strong mandate; the country gave her a clear message.

What happened?

The Conservatives were expected to return to government with an expanded majority as the incumbents set out to capitalise on a 20-point poll lead and a disorderly opposition. On polling day they achieved an overall loss of 13 seats and a hung parliament.

Explanations for this unexpected turn of events have been plentiful.

The collapse of UKIP, which was expected to favour the Conservatives almost exclusively, ended up providing Labour with far more return voters than expected.

The surge in the youth vote was unprecedented and Labour was the main beneficiary.

May’s public appearances were also blamed as she failed to live up to her “strong and stable” messaging and lost her net positive approval rating in the leader polls.

Then there were the manifesto blunders. The care cap u-turn, ‘dementia tax’, scrapping of the Triple Lock, removal of free school meals and introduction of means testing for the Winter Fuel Allowance gave Labour a free hand with which to paint the May administration as the same old ‘nasty party’ and afforded May and her colleagues ample opportunities to squirm on primetime TV and radio.

The almost fully unrealised #LibDemFightback also helped Labour in key marginal seats. Areas where vote-splitting among the centre and left had previously helped the Conservatives to victory, proved more binary this time.

Factoring in the 7 Sinn Fein MPs who will not take their seats, as well as the Speaker and his three deputies (who do not take part in votes except where precedent / convention allows), this result leaves the Conservatives 2 MPs short of the 320 required to hold a majority in most regular votes of the House. May has therefore decided to lead the Conservatives in a minority government in collaboration with the Democratic Unionist Party. The details of any agreement between the two parties will need to be firmed up over the weekend and early next week.

It feels as though the people of the United Kingdom have, in aggregate, and with the help of an unprecedented number of young people, delivered an exquisite message to Theresa May: our support should never be taken for granted.

What now?

The relationship between the Conservatives and the DUP is relatively strong on some issues, most notably on the future of Northern Ireland as part of the UK. These parties are used to finding themselves in the same division lobby. On the two biggest issues of the day – the UK’s future relationship with the EU and austerity policy – they are, however, divided.

The DUP are keen for Brexit not to play into the hands of their geopolitical rivals, Sinn Fein, by reintroducing anything that looks or feels like a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. David Davis has already intimated that the May Government’s stance on membership of the Single Market and Customs Union may have to change in light of their election night losses. How this potential ‘softening’ of Brexit policy will be received by the more dogmatic Brexit supporters within the Conservative ranks is not clear – they have a reputation for not playing ball and indeed were cited by many as a reason to hold a snap election in the first place.

As for the myriad of other big issues, such as the industrial strategy, social care and the NHS, it remains to be seen to what extent the DUP is prepared to dig in its heels and exploit its rare period of real leverage. Organisations looking to influence public policy during this Parliament will need to get to grips with the implications of this unusual arrangement and establish a clear handle on DUP thinking and how the Conservative leadership intends to find those marginal votes on a bill-by-bill basis.

These are unchartered waters and the prospect of another snap election in a few months time should not be ruled out – see 1974.

This new and challenging political environment poses significant uncertainty to many businesses. Without specialist advice, a strategic error can be costly – even fatal. If your organisation needs help understanding and engaging with the political mechanisms in the wake of the General Election, please call 020 7368 3100 or email info@portcullispublicaffairs.com.