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Nigel Hastilow: Where’s our strong and stable leadership now?

By Nigel Hastilow | Nigel Hastilow | Published:

Theresa May warned us about the danger of a coalition of chaos, but she never said she would be at the head of it.

Theresa May

Her disastrous bid to boost the Tory majority in the Commons backfired so spectacularly that she is now forced to rely on the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

So little is known about the DUP that yesterday it briefly became the most searched inquiry on Google.

Yet Mrs May now has to trust in the support of the 10 Ulster politicians to shore up her crumbling government.

It is a reasonable and legitimate position for her to adopt. The Conservatives did, after all, win the most seats and gain the most votes in the General Election. Indeed, they won 44 per cent of the vote which matches Margaret Thatcher in her heyday.

To that extent, Mrs May did win. The calls for her to quit may have come in public from opposition politicians, but there are plenty of MPs in her own party who now believe her days are numbered.

For, despite their mathematical victory, the Conservatives were the biggest losers. The election was, after all, called by Mrs May and turned into a referendum on her leadership. It was an unnecessary and opportunistic contest.

Politics is a tough game. It is difficult to doubt Mrs May’s dedication, but she made a terrible mistake, an error which will go down in history and she is now so badly weakened it seems almost impossible to imagine her staying in office for the next five years.

At some point in the near future, the Conservatives will be casting round for a new leader. Boris Johnson may be the best-known candidate for the top job, but if Ruth Davidson were a Westminster MP, she would probably already be Prime Minister.

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Ms Davidson is the one Tory leader who emerges from the fray with real credit. The leader of the Scottish Conservatives fought a completely different battle from Mrs May.

She campaigned for the Union, taking on the Scottish Nationalists and arguing the country did not want a second independence referendum. As a result, the Scottish Conservatives gained 12 seats, up from just one last time, to become the biggest party of opposition to the SNP.

Of course the real winner was Jeremy Corbyn, even though Labour actually lost the election and could not plausibly form a government even with the backing of the other parties.

From a standing start, Mr Corbyn campaigned so successfully he robbed Mrs May not merely of the landslide she was expecting but of a simple majority in the Commons.

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This was a remarkable achievement which came because the Labour leader managed to persuade younger voters to get down to the polling stations and give him their support. At 66.4 per cent, the turnout on Thursday was the highest since Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997 – and it was even higher among younger age groups.

Many people will have felt Mr Corbyn was justified in saying after the results were in: “We put forward our policies, strong and hopeful policies, and they have gained an amazing response and traction.

“I think it’s pretty clear who won this election. We are ready to serve the people who have given their trust to us.”

This bid for power – backed up by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who says Labour could form a minority Government without doing deals with anyone – will doubtless be the party’s refrain in the weeks to come.

But the Tories will not want to give Labour a sniff of power. If Mr Corbyn once finds himself inside Number 10, the Tories will calculate, there is a danger the voters like what they see and vote for more of it at an early General Election.

It happened in the two elections in 1974 under Harold Wilson and there is no reason to suppose history cannot repeat itself.

Yet the difficulty for Mrs May and her colleagues is that her credibility – the idea that she offers strong and stable leadership – has been shot to pieces.

This would matter at any time, but on June 19 the British Government is due to enter into talks with Brussels on this country’s withdrawal from the European Union.

Far from strengthening her hand by winning a thumping election triumph, Mrs May has thrown away any advantage her modest Commons majority gave her and – worse still – she has been badly wounded.

She won’t be striding confidently into talks with her EU counterparts; she will be limping into them, looking shamefaced and defeated, a wounded animal who, many people will think, should be put out of her misery.

Mrs May says the country now needs a period of stability, which is why she will remain at her post, at least for the time being. And there is no doubt few people would relish another General Election this year.

The problems, however, will multiply. The EU now has a much stronger hand in the Brexit talks than Mrs May does.

Whatever deal she might get will almost certainly be nothing like the hard Brexit most Leave voters were led to expect.

It is quite possible Britain will, for all practical purposes, remain a member of the EU.

We could end up paying money to Brussels, remain subject to European Court rulings and Commission directives and be unable to take back control over immigration. Indeed, the soft Brexit we may now be subjected to would see us lose our MEPs and our places on the Commission and Council of Ministers without gaining anything in return.

We supposedly have two years to do a deal with Brussels, but there is every chance the deadline will be extended, talks will go on and on, and Britain will endure years of damaging economic uncertainty.

Meanwhile, Mr Corbyn plausibly claims to have changed the entire political landscape. He fought on domestic issues, exploited the hardships caused by former Chancellor George Osborne’s austerity programme and lamented the decline of public services.

We are still living under the financial shadow of the Great Banking Crash of 2007-8 and many voters are sick of being forced to foot the bill for the extravagance of highly-paid City gamblers.

That’s why Mr Corbyn’s promise of lavish public spending increases proved so popular.

An insecure Government will not make it any easier to balance the books or encourage growth. The economy could be hard hit by the outcome of this election. A slowdown must now be a real possibility.

For now, the Conservatives seem prepared to let Mrs May carry on.

The Prime Minister sounded determined yesterday afternoon to get on with the job, appointing a cabinet and preparing for the Brexit talks and she pointedly referred to the Tories as the Conservative and Unionist Party.

“What the country needs more than ever is certainty,” she declared.

She is right. The country does need certainty more than ever. Unfortunately, she has given us the opposite.

Nigel Hastilow

By Nigel Hastilow

Express & Star columnist

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