A couple of months ago, I mused in these pages whether Theresa May’s decision to call a snap general election would backfire, as it did when her predecessor Edward Heath took a similar decision back in February 1974.
As it transpires, May’s gamble has not paid off. Although her Conservative Party garnered the most votes in the 8th June election and remains the largest within the House of Commons, a surge by Labour has resulted in a hung parliament and the end of the Tory majority.
The prelude, campaign and results of the 2017 general election mirror those of 1974. Tory overconfidence against a seemingly disunited opposition, a lacklustre campaign compounded by policy errors and weak manifestos, and ultimately a hung parliament (although it is worth noting that Heath’s Conservatives were not even the largest party, losing by 4 seats to Harold Wilson’s Labour).
As in 1974, also, the immediate future is unclear. May has vowed to soldier on as Prime Minister, even though her minority government is now reliant on an unlikely kingmaker to pass its desired legislation: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP sits even further to the right than the Tories on the political spectrum, its Eurosceptic, socially conservative views at odds with those of much of the British populace.
Even were May to win a loose alignment with the DUP – necessarily giving the Northern Irish party influence way beyond its 10 seats – she would still need to maintain the loyalty of Tory backbenchers, certainly not guaranteed.
The alternatives, however, are hardly appealing. May’s resignation would trigger a Tory leadership contest and probably another general election, something the British electorate is unlikely to have energy for.
Alternatively, there is the prospect of a minority Labour government under the stewardship of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has proved himself a competent campaigner, his skills honed by years of futile protesting against almost every policy any government has ever advocated. The chances of him being an effective PM, however, are slim, with Labour’s wild campaign promises surely not capable of being fulfilled in government.
Mrs May will know that Heath’s attempts to form a coalition government in 1974 failed, prompting his resignation. Wilson’s minority Labour government hung on until a second election of the year (held in October) delivered him a narrow majority.
With Brexit negotiations yet to begin in earnest, threats to Britain’s security seemingly increasing by the day, and economic recovery still ponderous, all we know for certain is that the country is in for an uncertain few months.
How Mrs May must regret not taking heed of history and allowing her majority, albeit narrow, to steer Britain ahead through the choppiest of waters.