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UK Election 2017: Theresa May gambled on snap polls, but failed to do an Indira or Thatcher

The Conservative Party’s rather unspectacular show in the 2017 General Election in the United Kingdom — the results of which trickled in on Friday morning — has shown that Theresa May’s gamble on a snap election has backfired. It is likely to weaken, rather than strengthen, May’s profile in the British politics.

After all, there was an expectation that the 2017 election would enhance May’s standing in international politics and augment her position in navigating through Brexit talks.

When May took what she thought was a bold decision in April this year to call for elections long ahead of the scheduled time, and the opinion polls then predicted a landslide victory for her Conservative Party, there was a general feeling that she was carving a path just as Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher had done before her.

 UK Election 2017: Theresa May gambled on snap polls, but failed to do an Indira or Thatcher

Theresa May listens as the declaration at her constituency is made in Maidenhead, England. AP

People found a certain commonality among these leaders. All three, women leaders, have been prime ministers of their respective countries — Gandhi being the prime minister of the largest democracy in the world, and Thatcher and May being prime ministers of the oldest democracy of the world.

Gandhi and Thatcher had, of course, presided over the destiny of their respective countries for over a decade; May has, however, been in office for less than a year.

But one political action is common to all three women leaders: All three assumed office with a limited majority in the legislature and all three called for a General Election well before the completion of their tenure.

Gandhi, plagued by dissension and a split within her party, the Indian National Congress, advanced the election by a year in 1971 and changed her political fortune from leading a minority government (propped up by the Communist Party of India) to a government with a handsome majority of around 90 seats (Congress won 352 out of 518 seats in the Lok Sabha). Post-1971, Gandhi came to be known as the Iron Lady of Indian politics.

Thatcher who came to power as Leader of the Conservative Party in 1979 too advanced the General Election by a year in 1983 and increased her party’s majority in the House of Commons from a modest 43 seats in 1979 election to a spectacular lead of 144 seats in the 1983 election. After 1983, Margaret Thatcher too earned the sobriquet of Iron Lady in the United Kingdom.

May had the opportunity to rule till 2020, as the Conservative Party had won more than 50 percent seats on its own in the 2015 general election, but she felt constrained by a majority of just 16 seats in the House of Commons to effectively undertake the gargantuan task of Brexit negotiations with the European Union; she took a calculated risk and advanced election by three years. But that has turned out to be a disaster.

By leading United Kingdom to a hung Parliament, her election gamble clearly went wrong.

Why has May failed where Thatcher or Gandhi succeeded? It could be because when Gandhi or Thatcher called for early elections by a year, they had already been in power for four years and had taken some policy decisions and implemented certain astute programmes that had captured the imagination of the voters. Voters had no hesitation in reinforcing their faith and hope in these leaders.

But May had been in office for just around 10 months when she called for elections. She had not taken any major decisions during this period to capture the attention of the voters. Throughout this period, she was largely preoccupied with setting in motion the process of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, as mandated by the British citizens in a referendum last year.

In fact, when the Brexit referendum was held, May was the interior minister in David Cameron’s government. Both Cameron and May were at the forefront of the ‘Remain’ campaign that urged the British electorate to vote in favour of the status quo — for the UK to remain a part of the EU. But a majority of the British voters supported the ‘Leave’ campaign.

Cameron demonstrated his moral standing by tendering resignation as prime minister after the loss of face with the referendum result; he was legally not required to do so. But as a fervent EU supporter, he did not want to preside over the liquidation of the British ties with the EU. So he honourably walked out. May was in the same boat as Cameron; she had vigorously campaigned for the UK to remain with EU. But she felt no moral conflict in joining the race to succeed Cameron as prime minister when the time came to execute the decision to leave the EU.

It was an oddity, a moral compromise that could not have escaped the attention of the average voter in UK. It was in the fitness of things that she should have carried out the given task — of leading Britain out of the EU — in a low-key manner.

Jeremy Corbyn smiles after arriving for the declaration at his constituency in London. AP

Jeremy Corbyn smiles after arriving for the declaration at his constituency in London. AP

The Brexit decision was a popular mandate. It did not need a large majority in the House of Commons to effectively pilot the provisions. The Conservative Party had a majority of 16, enough to make essential legislation.

But May turned out to be ambitious; she felt that the majority of 16 in the House had been attained by the Conservative Party under the leadership of Cameron. She appeared to be in the chair by default. She thought she would be able to improve her personal standing by winning an election under her own leadership. She was encouraged to take this risk as the main Opposition, the Labour Party, appeared to be in the doldrums. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was derided by the major section of the media as uninspiring and un-prime-minister-like.

Corbyn was also mocked for his ‘loony left’ ideas. He was branded unpatriotic for his long years of support to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) that advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament by the United Kingdom. Corbyn, who had been consigned to the backbench of Labour Party politics for over three decades due to his no-more-fashionable radical ideas, was catapulted to the leadership position after the humiliating defeat of the Labour Party in the 2015 general elections. But he refused to ‘mend’ ways — he refused to mould his views to be ‘prime-minister-like’.

As a matter of fact, Corbyn’s election manifesto last month was compared to the manifesto that was released by Michael Foot who had led the Labour Party campaign against Thatcher’s Conservative Party in that eventful 1983 election.

Foot’s 39-page election manifesto has been dubbed as the longest suicide note in British history (it contained such radical ideas that it supposedly made Labour unelectable); the Labour Party could not come to power for next 14 years after that 1983 debacle. Corbyn was seen as toeing the line of Foot, the loser and not Tony Blair, the winner, who led the Labour to three successive victories in General Elections in the 1990s. Nobody minded that, in the process, Blair hollowed out the core ideological postulates for which the Labour Party was known for most part in the 20th Century.

May was confident that Corbyn would do a Foot to the Labour; that she would remain in saddle for long years, just as Thatcher did in the 1980s.

But British voters this time put a dampener on May’s hopes. The terrorist strike twice in quick succession added to May’s woes. The British voter did not hand down an outright victory to Corbyn; they did not bless May with a majority either. By giving a verdict for a hung Parliament, the electorate there has opened an uncertain chapter in the British history. Its contours will unfold in the days to come.

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Updated Date: Jun 09, 2017 11:21:38 IST