Conservatives Lose Majority in British Election

Theresa May’s gamble backfires. Her Conservative Party loses its majority in Britain’s Parliament.

British party leaders Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May
British party leaders Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May (PES/DoD/Jette Carr)
  • Elections were held in the United Kingdom on Thursday.
  • The ruling Conservatives have lost their majority but remain the largest party with 317 out of 650 seats in the House of Commons. They could probably count on the support of unionists from Northern Ireland to form a majority government.
  • Labour won 40 percent support nationwide and 261 seats, up 29.
  • The Scottish National Party has gone down from 56 to 35 seats. A second independence referendum is now less likely.
  • The centrist Liberal Democrats gained four seats and are at twelve.
Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 8, 201712:57 PM

What to make of the polls?

YouGov’s latest projection has the Conservatives at 42 percent support, which would give them 269 to 334 seats in the House of Commons. They currently have 330, only five more than are needed for a majority.

YouGov predict Labour will win 38 percent support, which would give them between 238 and 302 seats. They now have 232.

Other surveys have support for the Conservatives anywhere between 39 and 47 percent and Labour between 34 and 40 percent.

Politico reports that the difference is largely due to the assumptions pollster make about turnout.

Martin Boon, the director of ICM Research, says that his company is “basically disbelieving — I guess is the right word — the sudden surge in turnout likelihood among those who traditionally have not turned out in great numbers.” That would be young and low-income voters.

His poll has Labour at its lowest support.

Polling guru Nate Silver is doubtful that the polls could be so far off as to allow Labour to prevail, but he writes at FiveThirtyEight that the numbers are only a normal-sized polling error (3-4 percent) away from a hung parliament.

On the other hand, the Conservatives do tend to beat their polls, he points out:

That was the case in 2015, for instance, when Conservatives outperformed their polls by a net of 6 percentage points. There was an even worse error in 1992, when polls showed Labour narrowly ahead but instead Conservatives won in a landslide, making for a 9-point polling miss.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 8, 20171:47 PM

Tired of being used

One reason to doubt high turnout today is that voters are tired of political games.

Matthew Engel argues in the Financial Times that on some deep, visceral level, “the British seem to understand when they are being used.”

The [EU] referendum was a political boomerang aimed by David Cameron at a few rightwing beasts inside the Conservative Party and UKIP so he could eat them for breakfast; it ended up knocking him flat. May’s strategy was not dissimilar: she wanted to take advantage of Corbyn’s political weakness to reset the electoral clock.

It may still work. But the ploy was a little obvious this time.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 8, 20172:30 PM

Reasons to doubt Labour’s poll surge

British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn participates in a panel discussion about the future of the European Union in the Czech capital of Prague, December 3, 2016
British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn participates in a panel discussion about the future of the European Union in the Czech capital of Prague, December 3, 2016 (PES)

It’s not just that young voters are less likely to turn out. Leadership ratings are often a better indicator than voting intent and May is seen as more prime ministerial than Corbyn.

Labour’s surge has also come at the expense of smaller parties on the left, but that does it little good in competitive districts where the left wasn’t strong to begin with. Racking up more left-wing votes in metropolitan areas is electorally useless — something Democrats in the United States know all too well.

To threaten the Conservatives’ majority, Labour would need to pry middle-class votes away from them in rural and small-town England.

Click here to read more.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 8, 20173:46 PM

Older voters shift to the right

Young voters may not show up; old voters usually do. And they vote Conservative.

Gaby Hinsliff has argued in The Guardian that May’s allegations of EU interference in the election were meant to resonate with people “old enough to remember a time when we managed fine outside the EU.”

The quickest way to understand what May is doing is often to imagine how it sounds to a much older person, because that’s where the center of politics is moving. Britain is aging and the older it gets, the further to the right it’s shifting.

YouGov calculates that for every ten years people age, their likelihood of voting Conservative rises 8 percent. That helps explain why fewer than one in five people aged 65 to 75 (and fewer than one in ten over-75s) identify as Labour.

Atlantic Sentinel Atlantic Sentinel June 8, 20174:24 PM

Liberal Democrats are the least bad option

British Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron
British Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron (Shutterstock/Finbarr Webster)

The Atlantic Sentinel has endorsed the Liberal Democrats in this election, seeing them as the least bad choice when both the Conservatives and Labour are living in the past:

They may not accomplish much, but at least someone will be arguing for a less disruptive Brexit in the next Parliament.

We have called on Scottish voters who oppose independence to support their local Tory candidate:

Ruth Davidson is one of the few Cameroons left and deserves all the help she can get.

Click here to read more.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 8, 20174:40 PM

Anti-May bastion

One place Theresa May isn’t winning any hearts is London, the Financial Times reports:

Pollsters say that London is different largely because of its demographics: it has a higher than average number of young people, ethnic minorities and graduates, and a lower than average number of white, socially conservative voters. Unlike in other parts of the country, there are relatively few UK Independence Party voters who can bolster Conservative support.

To put that in other terms: London is a “blue” bastion in Europe’s blue-red culture war.

We saw this split clearly in the EU referendum, as I reported at the time: young and university-educated voters opted for “remain” whereas their elders chose to leave the EU.

It’s also a sign of the urban-rural gap. Metropolitan areas tend to be more liberal to begin with and they have benefited from open borders and multiculturalism whereas people in small towns and the countryside feel left behind.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 8, 20175:04 PM

An absence wrapped in a mystery

Ian Dunt writes in Foreign Policy that the issue of Britain’s exit from the EU has been weirdly absent from the campaign.

May, he points out, refuses to discuss much of it, relying instead on her mantra that “Brexit means Brexit” and she intends “to make a success of it.”

May has asked voters to trust her judgment on Brexit issues without being prepared to divulge any details. Her election strategy has resembled a religious demand more than an intellectual proposition. Nearly a year on, Brexit remains an absence wrapped in a mystery.

As a result, attention has wandered to domestic issues and that’s where things started to fall apart for the Conservatives.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 8, 20175:20 PM

Liberal Democrats rule out coalition

Nick Clegg, who led the Liberal Democrats into a government with the Conservatives in 2010, has ruled out another coalition, telling Politico a minority administration would have to “borrow, beg and scrape votes to get their business through.”

The Liberal Democrats are unlikely to win enough seats to give Labour a majority, but if the Conservatives fall only a few seats short they might just place a crucial role again.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 8, 20176:10 PM

Both parties have left the center wide open

British prime minister Theresa May speaks during an international conference about Somalia in London, England, May 11
British prime minister Theresa May speaks during an international conference about Somalia in London, England, May 11 (DoD/Jette Carr)

Both Corbyn and May have played more to their base than appealed to centrist voters. It’s working for them in the short term but could be risky in the long term.

When Labour veered to left in the 1970s and 80s, it allowed the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher to shift the center ground to the right. When her successors drifted too far to the right, it created an opening for Tony Blair’s New Labour to define the politics of the early 2000s. It was only when David Cameron “detoxified” the Tory party that it could win power again two decades later.

The center of British politics lies somewhere between Blair’s Third Way and Cameron’s compassionate conservatism. Brexit, and the setback for liberalism it represents, may have tilted the balance to the right, but every action has a reaction. The Brexit victory is bound to galvanize the 48 percent who voted against leaving the EU.

The question is, where will they go?

Click here to read more.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 8, 20176:53 PM

Too late and too early

The reason Brexit hasn’t featured prominently in the election campaign, argues Jon Worth, is that it’s both too late and too early for it:

Too late in that it is adequately far after the referendum to mean that temperatures have cooled a little — thanks at least in part due to a solid media consensus backing the Conservatives’ position and urging everyone to move on. It is simultaneously too early in that the negotiations are yet to start, so an assessment of how bad things may get cannot yet be concluded and before Brexit really has an economic impact.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 8, 20177:37 PM

Knives could come out for May

Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau of Canada and Theresa May of the United Kingdom speak at the G7 summit in Taormina, Italy, May 26
Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau of Canada and Theresa May of the United Kingdom speak at the G7 summit in Taormina, Italy, May 26 (Flickr/Justin Trudeau)

If May fails to expand the Conservatives’ majority in Parliament, expect the knives to come out for her quickly.

Betting markets give Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson and Amber Rudd the best odds.

Sajid Javid, a junior minister, and Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, take fourth and fifth place, respectively. Both are seen as rising stars.

Four out of five — Hammond, Rudd, Javid, Davidson — sided with David Cameron in opposing Brexit.

Click here to read more.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 8, 20179:15 PM

Why did May call this election?

There has been an assumption that May called this election to bolster the ranks of moderate Conservatives and help her stare down uncompromising Brexiteers in the party. This Anatole Kaletsky op-ed is a good example of the conventional wisdom.

Alastair Campbell, a former Tony Blair advisor, thinks it’s the other way around. He writes for CNN that May knows the Brexit negotiations will be hard. There’s a good chance she will end up with either a bad deal or no deal at all, in which case the United Kingdom would lose preferential access to its biggest market.

She wants to get a bigger majority, with more ideological hard-Brexit Tories on board, for when the whole thing unravels and the economy shrinks.

We can’t read the prime minister’s mind, of course, but it does seem to me Kaletsky and others are guilty of wishful thinking and Campbell has this one right.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 8, 20179:44 PM

Blow to the West

Judy Dempsey, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, argues that this election will deal a double blow to the West no matter who wins.

Britain’s traditional liberalism, its diplomatic experience and its Anglo-Saxon economic culture will be sorely missed by Europe, she writes. British foreign policy is led by a man — Boris Johnson — “who lacks all sense of gravity about the road his country is headed down.” And the vote to leave the EU has had toxic impact on Britain’s political culture:

The political discourse is dominated by a blame game, shallowness and introverted debates.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 8, 201710:03 PM

Polls close

The polls have closed at 10 PM London time and the projection is that the Conservatives will remain the largest party but fall short of a majority.

The exit poll conducted by GfK and Ipsos for the three major broadcasters gives the Conservatives 314 seats — twelve short of a majority.

Labour are seen winning 266 seats, a gain of 34.

The Scottish National Party are projected to win 34 seats, which would be a surprising loss of twelve. The BBC cautions, though, that a lot of the contests in Scotland are close, so this number may go up — and Labour’s down — as the night progresses.

The Liberal Democrats are at fourteen, up six from the last election.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 8, 201710:12 PM

Center-left voters send a message

So it looks like May’s gamble failed. My money is on Matthew Engel’s thesis, who argued in the Financial Times that voters recognized they were being used (to help the Conservatives expand their majority) and decided to rebel.

It looks like the Conservatives were able to make up the ground they lost in the center with hard-right voters from UKIP, but that center-left voters flocked from the Liberal Democrats and Greens and possibly the SNP to Labour in order to send a message.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 8, 201710:20 PM

This is not a vindication of Corbynism

Jeremy Corbyn as his acolytes will likely read this result as a vindication of their far-left beliefs. This would be a mistake. Short of Labour’s recovery in the polls, there is little indication the British people wish for a restoration of the 1970s welfare state, with its inefficient state-run industries and powerful trade unions.

Nor is Corbyn’s foreign policy — for unilateral nuclear disarmament, against Israel, apologetic about extremists and lukewarm about the EU — very popular.

If Labour is smart, they will rather interpret this result as a rejection of May’s conservatism and decide to take up the empty space in the center of British politics.

But then, if Labour were smart, they would never have elected and reelected Jeremy Corbyn as their leader to begin with…

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 8, 201711:00 PM

Conservatives are likely to stay in power

Together with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, who are projected to defend their eight seats in the House of Commons, the Conservatives — according to the exit poll — would be only four seats away from a majority.

And it’s not at all unthinkable the Conservatives can pick up an extra four or five seats tonight. In 2015, the exit poll also underestimated their support.

By contrast, it’s hard to see how Labour could reach a majority. Even a coalition with both the Liberal Democrats and Scottish nationalists wouldn’t put them over the top. They would need the support of almost every single other party except the Conservatives for a majority.

So no need to worry about a Prime Minister Corbyn yet.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 8, 201711:47 PM

What the election result means

Statue of former British prime minister Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, in Parliament Square, London, England, May 30, 2005
Statue of former British prime minister Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, in Parliament Square, London, England, May 30, 2005 (JR P)

I’ve put together an explainer of the election result’s likely consequences for who governs, what will happen in the two major parties, Scottish independence and Brexit.

Click here to read more.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 9, 201712:54 AM

May’s tenure could soon end

Robin Pettitt of Kingston University expects this election to go down in history as May’s failure rather than Corbyn’s success, telling the London School of Economics she will be blamed by her party for throwing away a double-digit poll lead:

Considering the Conservative campaign was heavily focussed on May The Leader (“Theresa May’s team”) and that the Conservative Party is ruthless in dealing with leaders who fail to win, May’s tenure at Number 10 is likely to come to a messy end in the not too distant future.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 9, 20171:11 AM

Cameron doesn’t look so bad now, does he?

Prime Ministers David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Pedro Passos Coelho of Portugal meet in Lisbon, September 4, 2015
Prime Ministers David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Pedro Passos Coelho of Portugal meet in Lisbon, September 4, 2015 (The Prime Minister’s Office/Adam Brown)

When David Cameron stepped down a year ago, I argued it was a huge loss for his party:

Cameron led the Conservatives to two election victories by making the right appealing to voters in the center again. His successor is likely to be more reactionary and will anyway be in thrall to the Euroskeptics for whom the outcome of the referendum is a vindication.

Cameron was dismissed as bland and dispassionate, but that is not a bad thing. Given the choice between a competent administrator and an adventurous ideologue, voters in grownup countries will almost certainly opt for the former — as they probably should.

Hence Jeremy Corbyn remains unelectable and hence the drop in support for the Conservatives. Cameron may have been boring; he was a safe pair of hands. Theresa May tried to present herself as “strong and stable” but has been neither.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 9, 20171:28 AM

324 would be enough

The Conservatives would be able to govern with 324, as opposed to 326, seats, because Sinn Féin — which seeks the unification of Ireland — refuses to take its seats in Westminster.

The party is expected to win four seats in Northern Ireland, the same number it won in 2015.

Of course, such a razor-thin majority would allow any one lawmaker to hold the entire government hostage.

Christian FitzHugh Christian FitzHugh June 9, 20171:44 AM

Conservative hubris turns into disarray

It strikes me that a degree of hubris in the campaign fought by the Conservatives has been exposed with this exit poll.

Believing that to merely emphasize the weakness of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn would be enough to maintain her huge lead in the polls, it has come across that Theresa May has taken the electorate for granted. When she finally came out from behind the cover of her sloganeering (“Brexit means Brexit”, “strong and stable leadership”) she allowed herself to be subjected to proper scrutiny.

An uncosted manifesto that sought to cover new ground and attract blue-collar voters both to the right and to the left would remove social care and pension support for older voters, a key constituency of any Conservative majority. This seemed like overreach and overconfidence.

Subsequent policy U-turns, particularly on social care, and May’s refusal to participate in the election debates called her “strong” leadership into question.

While May’s popularity had been prematurely exaggerated, it is possible that her opponent was prematurely written off.

Corbyn, having suffered in opposition, has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been more at ease on the campaign trail. Whether leading rallies on nuclear nonproliferation or against the Iraq War, he has spent much of his time as a parliamentarian in this arena.

With the exit poll in mind, whereas previously it was thought a colossal defeat would put Corbyn and Labour out of their misery, now it is May looking over her shoulder.

Having sought a bigger majority to strengthen her hand in the Brexit talks, which start in only eleven days, May, and more importantly the United Kingdom, faces the potential of a weakened government or indeed a hung parliament. Far from strong and stable.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 9, 20171:59 AM

Britain’s unimpressive politicians

The Economist bemoans the absence of formidable politicians and argues there are two reasons.

First is the rise of the far left. Three out of four Labour parliamentarians have concluded that Jeremy Corbyn is not fit to run the party, scuppering their chances of a shadow-cabinet position.

Second, Brexit. It has hollowed out the Conservative Party:

Several prominent remainers (including David Cameron and [George] Osborne) have retired while several leading leavers (such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove) are seriously weakened. The Conservative Party chose Mrs May because she hadn’t expressed any strong opinions about the most important question of her time.

But the root of the problem goes deeper, according to The Economist: politics has become a profession.

Yesterday’s tribunes of the people, or at least of the people’s leading interest groups, have been replaced by professionals who make their livelihood out of politics. The trouble is, it turns out that politics is not a very attractive profession.

Politics is relatively low-paid. The working hours are horrendous. The responsibilities, for those in power, are enormous. And yet the public treats you with suspicion and contempt. Little wonder that talented Britons would rather go into business or work for an NGO.

Joseph de Maistre first said it two centuries ago and Barack Obama, the former American president, has been fond of paraphrasing him lately: people get the leaders they deserve.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 9, 20172:15 AM

Liberal Democrats could hold balance of power

Ben Kentish argues in The Independent that a Corbyn premiership cannot be ruled out.

He points out that the Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon has previously said she can imagine joining “a progressive alliance” while the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas has said she would be willing to support a Labour-led government. (Although it may be politically more convenient for the SNP to have the Conservatives in power; that allows them to agitate against an “English” government most Scottish voters despise.)

If the Conservatives do fall short of a majority, even in a coalition with the Northern Irish DUP, the Liberal Democrats would hold the balance of power. They could either put the Conservatives over the top or put Labour within striking distance of a majority.

Christian FitzHugh Christian FitzHugh June 9, 20172:17 AM

Return to two-party politics

It seems we have a return to two-party politics with this election. The Conservatives appear to have made gains in areas that voted “leave” in last year’s referendum with help from some pacts with UKIP at a local level. Labour by in large has increased its share of the vote in “remain” areas. Even in Scotland both major parties look like they will make gains.

The binary choice offered by the EU referendum has, at least for the moment, stopped the fragmentation in support for both Labour and the Conservatives.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 9, 20172:24 AM

Conservatives up in new forecast

With results in from 122 out of 650 constituencies, the BBC is updating its forecast. It now projects 322 seats for the Conservatives, four short of a majority; 261 for Labour; 32 for the SNP and thirteen for the Liberal Democrats.

A Prime Minister Corbyn is starting to look less and less likely. With eight seats for the DUP, the right should be able to hold onto power — if these figures pan out.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 9, 20172:32 AM

Tories outperform in Scotland

There is one place where the Conservatives are doing better than expected: Scotland. So far, they have taken three constituencies from the SNP there. More are expected to follow.

This is a victory for Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader who campaigned against both Brexit and Scottish independence. She is now clearly the opposition leader in the north, although Labour has also stolen two constituencies from the SNP and is hoping for a win in Glasgow.

As I argued in my explainer of the election result, tonight is definitively a setback for Scottish separatism. It does not look like voters are keen on a second independence referendum after all.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 9, 20172:33 AM

I’m going to take a break and sleep a few hours. My team and I will be back in the morning with more analysis and commentary. If there is a leadership crisis in the Conservative Party, we will have further live blogs about that in the days ahead.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens June 9, 201710:03 AM

Final results

Good morning! Results are now in from 648 out of 650 constituencies. Here are the results:

The Conservatives have 317 seats, a loss of twelve and nine short of a majority.

The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland has won ten seats, up two, and would be able to give Theresa May a majority — but it would be a narrow one.

Sinn Féin, the Irish nationalist party, has won seven seats in Northern Ireland. They traditionally refuse to sit in Parliament, which means that in practice only 322 seats are needed for a majority.

The only good news for the Conservatives is that they have picked up twelve seats in Scotland, where they now have thirteen. The Scottish National Party lost 21 seats and have 35 left.

Labour has won 261 seats nationwide, including seven in Scotland, an overall gain of 29.

But that masks the scale of its victory. Support for Labour went up almost 10 percent across the country, at the expense of the Greens, Liberal Democrats, Scottish nationalists and United Kingdom Independence Party.

The Liberal Democrats picked up four seats and have twelve. The Greens still have one. UKIP lost its only seat in Parliament.

That concludes our live coverage of the election. Please head over to our day-after live blog for more analysis and commentary.