Hands up. I got it wrong. Yes, the Tory vote did jump 6 points, exactly as I predicted. But Labour rose further and faster – to 41 per cent of the electorate. Jeremy Corbyn is much mocked for wanting to take Britain back to the strife-torn, impoverished 1970s, but in one respect he has succeeded royally in his quest – we are back to two-party politics in which the smaller fry (Lib Dems, Greens, Ukip) are relegated to the sidelines.
As the Queen might ask, ‘Why didn’t anyone see this coming?’ The short answer is that some did: pollsters YouGov and Survation both published polls in the latter part of the campaign showing a marked narrowing of the gap. But most of us dismissed their warnings as rogue surveys – and the same, wrong conclusion was drawn in the Tory high command.
So why did it happen? Why didn’t Theresa May secure the big majority that was apparently hers for the taking back in April when she stunned Westminster by calling a snap election? Two words: the old and the young.
The May campaign amounted to a self-inflicted double whammy. It both alienated the old and had precious little to offer the young.
The Tory manifesto amounted to a slap in the face for the party’s core supporters. It proposed a complex and unwelcome shake-up of social care, swiftly and cleverly derided as the dementia tax, it took away winter fuel payments, and it ended the so-called triple lock guaranteeing that the state pension would rise by at least 2.5 per cent a year. It also watered down previous promises not to increase taxation.
More generally, the Conservatives were offering everyone precious little, besides the opportunity to endorse Mrs May’s winning personality. There was no “retail offer” – no simple, concrete reasons for supporting the party. Bizarrely and uniquely, the Conservatives fought a campaign without unsheathing their biggest weapon – the economy. Voters were invited to give Mrs May a thumping majority so she could sail across the Channel and thump the Europeans. It was not enough.
Of course, the Tory campaign was not about Tory policies – it was about how self-evidently unfitted Jeremy Corbyn and his wild-eyed henchmen were to run the country. With the initial polls giving May stratospheric personal ratings, the calculation was that “strong and stable” would obliterate “coalition of chaos”. In the event, chaos won – in fact we seem to living it now as the Prime Minister attempts to struggle on in association with the hard-faced Democratic Unionists.
Meanwhile, Corbyn moved to exploit his opportunities. His wish list of a manifesto promised the earth with no visible means of support – but that was exactly what the young wanted to hear. Not only tuition fees would be scrapped but past debts would be written off. Fat cats would be squeezed and what Tony Benn used to call the “commanding heights” of the economy (energy companies, water, railways) would be brought back under state control. Young people (anyone under the age of 40, their heads bursting with the fruits of years of leftist school and university propaganda) turned to Corbyn in droves.
And this time, the Facebook generation put down their smartphones for a few minutes and actually made it to the polling station. Detailed analysis of the demographics of the vote is yet to come, but with turnout up to 1997 Blairmania levels (69 per cent) it is a safe bet that for once the young registered their feelings at the ballot box.
The old, smarting from the dementia tax, were no longer numerous enough to outweigh a generation raised on the narcissism of social media. The effects were seen spectacularly in London, the stronghold of the Corbynistas where swings of 10 per cent were commonplace. As the Ukip vote collapsed, the Tories rose to 44 per cent of the vote. But Labour jumped from 31 to 41 as its model young army formed ranks.
For all that, the sense of shock generated by last night’s events should not obscure some simple facts. Labour did not win the election – it ended the night more than 60 seats short of the magic 326 needed to form a majority government. It did no better than Gordon Brown in 2010. Theresa May has the parliamentary arithmetic to carry on governing and she went to the Palace today to begin the process of forming a new administration.
But for Mrs May it can never be glad, confident morning again. Her honeymoon is well and truly over. The campaign, which pinned so much on her shoulders, revealed her to be lacking in the charisma, wit and spontaneity essential for inspirational leadership.
As for Brexit, her negotiating position is badly weakened. She asked for a mandate to drive a hard bargain in Brussels. The electorate has deprived her of the moral and political authority that would have flowed from a big win. In that sense, the national interest is damaged.
How long can she last? The Sunday papers will set about answering that question. Not long, is my guess. She doesn’t seem to enjoy the job – at least the bit that involves connecting with the bloody voters.