May’s failure: Blackadder & the UK General Election 2017
Dr Demetris Tillyris is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. He specialises in Contemporary Political Philosophy and the History of Political Thought. He also serves as the Director of Making Politics Matter.
To say that the 2017 General Election results are surprising would be an understatement. When Theresa May called the election, most opinion polls suggested that we should, at the very least, expect a healthy Conservative majority, if not a landslide. This much was also reflected in the betting odds set by various bookmakers. Yet, opinion polls and bookmakers proved almost as bad at gauging public opinion as Theresa May.
What the election result makes clear is that May’s gamble has not paid off. In fact, her failure can hardly be exaggerated. May hoped that, in holding a snap general election, she could capitalise on the weakness of, and bitter ideological squabbles within, the Labour Party, secure a landslide Conservative majority, and get a mandate that would purportedly strengthen her bargaining power in the Brexit negotiations. She has achieved the exact opposite: she has managed to throw away the narrow majority the Conservatives had in the last parliament, and to lose ‘safe Conservative seats’ to Labour – seats like Canterbury, which has been a Conservative stronghold since 1918, and which previously had a 10,000 majority.
The result of the General Election, however, is not just striking because of May’s unanticipated and epic political failure, but also, and more importantly perhaps, because it crystallises what became quite apparent during her disastrous, hubris-ridden political campaign: her failure of sound political judgement. Blinded, or perhaps misled, by the polls which suggested that the Tories were 20 per cent ahead of Labour, she took the electorate for granted. In stark contrast to Jeremy Corbyn, May appeared to be completely detached from political reality – the concrete injustices which plague our politics and society, and the plethora of insecurities and fears which now constitute a constant ingredient of our lives (see her ‘there’s no magic money tree’ response to the underpaid and struggling nurse during BBC Question Time election special). Her detachment from reality and profound failure of political judgement are, perhaps, epitomised in the way in which she (and Lynton Crosby) conducted her political campaign.
Theresa May’s campaign brings to mind a rather amusing scene from Blackadder III (which is worth watching or re-watching), where Edmund Blackadder, Prince George’s cunning, devious, and conniving butler – in an attempt to enhance the Prince’s political power and influence – instructs Baldrick – the hopelessly naïve, and innocent servant – to stand as an MP for Dunny-on-the-Wold: a ‘rotten borough’ which consists of ‘half an acre of sodden marshland in the Suffolk Fens, with an empty town hall on it … three rather mangy cows, a dachshund named `Colin’, and a small hen in its late forties’. In an interview before the election, Blackadder captures an important insight which May and Crosby have, at their peril, failed to entertain:
Blackadder: We in the Adder Party are going to fight this campaign on issues, not personalities.
Interviewer: Why is that?
Blackadder: Because our candidate doesn’t have a personality.
Blackadder’s point is clear and straightforward: if your candidate does not have a personality, do not turn your campaign into a personality contest. May’s and Crosby’s strategy was heavily, and erroneously focused on her being a robust and tough, one-trick pony, who could be relied on to deliver Brexit. But May’s lack of personality and charisma deemed her promise of ‘strong and stable leadership’ implausible. Indeed, the narrative of ‘strength and stability’ was even further undermined by her unwillingness to take part in head-to-head debates, her social care U-turn – four days after the launch of the Tory manifesto, and amid much fanfare about a fair Britain –, and the fact that the Tory Manifesto and campaign were, at best, rich in soundbites but profoundly thin on substance.
In her victory-defeat speech in Maidenhead, May has declared, in a crackling voice, her intention to marshal on. Her more recent statement confirms this much: the Tories will form a regressive alliance/minority government with the DUP. But whilst May is still emphasising the importance of stability and certainty, her position has been immensely weakened, and not only with her own party. As a number of EU officials have emphasised, her authority to conduct the Brexit negotiations has been severely undermined. And, without the 12 unanticipated Tory gains from the SNP in Scotland – gains which owe little to May -, her position would be even worse.