May’s mistaken gamble: Four things we learnt on election night

2016 was a year of major political upsets. 2017 has shown lightening can strike twice.

This was one of the most surprising general election results in recent memory. With a 20 point-lead in the polls, the perception of a weak opposition, and a window of opportunity prior to the Brexit negotiations, Theresa May was virtually assured success when she announced in April that the country would go to the polls for a snap general election on 8 June.

How could it have gone so wrong? Our team of consultants have analysed the campaign and identified four key themes that distinguish the 2017 vote from earlier iterations. Three were to the benefit Labour in the end, whilst our final theme spared the Conservatives complete humiliation

The power of youth

Turnout reached 69%, the highest level since the 1997 Labour landslide. Early analysis suggests Labour’s ambitious and upbeat policy agenda, aligned to an effective social media campaign, helped to engage young voters like never before. We will not know the final figures for several weeks, but the early indication is that there has been a significant increase in 18-25 year olds voting in this election.  The central theme for John Godfrey, Ben Gummer and Nick Timothy, the Conservative team writing the manifesto was to address intergenerational fairness. But proposals to shift the burden for social care spectacularly backfired. Ironically, an area of perceived strength for Mrs May ended up becoming the political issue to hurt her the most.

UKIP collapse was evenly shared

The implosion of UKIP, which secured 13% during the last general election, ended up benefiting both parties. Many pollsters had predicted that these voters would shift en masse towards the Conservatives, particularly within Brexit-voting constituencies in the Midlands and Wales. However, this did not translate on election day – with many of the 3.2 million voters that deserted UKIP choosing Corbyn over May.

An end to reductive campaigning?

The 2015 Conservative election campaign represented the best of a unified campaign. Such was the relentless focus on two key ideas, the importance of a strong economy and weakness of Ed Miliband in coalition, that Lynton Crosby adopted Queen’s “One Vision” as the rabble-rousing soundtrack for Conservative Campaign HQ.

The similar playbook was adopted this time, with startlingly different effects.  The narrow confines and ad nausea slogans made the Conservatives look clunky, rather than disciplined. This lack of individualism or flair was highlighted by the Prime Minister’s TVand radio appearances. Concentrating media coverage around a small number of top ministers – such as Amber Rudd or Sir Michael Fallon – had a sensible rationale but the result was disenchanted colleagues who felt removed from their own political party’s campaign.

Whilst personal attacks on Miliband in 2015 were well-timed, the vitriol on Corbyn seemed to misread the public mood. It was a more nimble Labour that ended up winning the air war this time, coining the “dementia tax” to great effect and presenting its leader as comfortable in his own skin.

Former party leader William Hague, himself a victim of an embarrassing election defeat, summarised it best: “The awful truth is that no party has given up such an advantageous situation with such speed in the modern electoral history of our country.”

SNP slip up saves Theresa.

It is the final unexpected theme that ended up saving the Conservatives. Since the electoral wipe out in 1997, the Conservatives have been viewed with derision north of the border. But the landscape is now transformed. The Conservatives won 323,852 more votes in Scotland than they did in 2015, translating into thirteen seats – their best performance in the country since 1983. On a poor night for the Conservatives, this revival in Scotland was a rare cause for celebration. Indeed, without this boost (driven by the charismatic Ruth Davidson) Theresa May would face an uphill struggle to form a functioning government, even with the assistance of the DUP. The twelve new MPs from Scotland now hold great sway – with speculation in the weekend papers that it could lead to a softening of the preferred Brexit stance.

Few now believe that Mrs May can survive a full parliamentary term, but if the Prime Minister can endure the grilling from her backbenchers this afternoon, calls for her resignation may become muffled. If only domestic politics were at play, the PM could hang on until after the summer break. But Brexit requires more than a propped up government, and the coming weeks will therefore provide her greatest personal test.