The blame, of course, falls squarely on the stooped shoulders of Theresa May. This was meant to be her election and she blew it. She blew it on a scale that was previously unimaginable. She fronted the most catastrophic campaign by any government in living memory.
The most obvious parallel was Edward Heath in 1974, a Conservative prime minister who also called an unexpected election on a single issue. ‘Do you want a strong government which has clear authority for the future to take the decision which will be needed?’ he asked. ‘Or do you want them to abandon the struggle against rising prices under pressure from one particular group of workers?’
It was intended as a rhetorical question, but the electorate took it as a serious enquiry. If the issue was ‘Who governs Britain?’ then the answer was self-evidently: ‘Not the man who can’t control the unions’.
This time the question was even simpler: should it be May or Jeremy Corbyn who conducted the Brexit negotiations? And the electorate was again unconvinced. To May’s credit, she didn’t fare quite as badly as Heath: the Tories are still in government and she is, for the moment, still prime minister. But that can’t obscure the appalling nature of the Tories’ performance in this election
What went wrong? Everything. The length of the campaign; the last-minute cobbled-together manifesto; the sudden unveiling of – and then U-turn on – the dementia tax; the ducking of the media; the stiff, awkward manner; the invisibility of Philip Hammond… But the single biggest problem was May’s own willingness to throw away her best card.
She was one of the early modernizers in the Conservative Party, the person who told the conference that they had to shed the image of being the ‘nasty party‘. For the public, she was an important part of David Cameron’s de-toxification programme. And when she became prime minister, she was still speaking the language of inclusive, modern One Nation Toryism.
But she quickly got sucked into a more divisive world, where Remainers were saboteurs and part of the metropolitan liberal elite; having so comprehensively insulted Londoners and their ilk, she could hardly be surprised when, from Kensington to Canterbury, they turned to politicians of the Left and centre.
Worse, come the actual campaign, the last surviving remnants of her modernizing agenda were jettisoned. De-toxification had relied heavily on sending signals as much as anything, hence the same-sex marriage legislation. And what did May have to offer this time? Fox hunting. What a stupid, stupid thing to include in the manifesto. A future fit for blood sports? The Tory vision for Brexit Britain suddenly looked cruel and class-bound.
We can only conclude that she didn’t trust her own political instincts – or that those instincts had hitherto been feigned. She allowed herself to be persuaded to go after UKIP voters – with the implicit (but wrong) assumption that they were all rabidly right-wing – rather than occupying the centre-right ground where she more naturally belongs.
And the result is that she now heads a minority government propped up by, of all people, the Democratic Unionists. The DUP? Really? The parliamentary arithmetic is unavoidable, but the irony is savage. How nasty do you want your party to be?
It seems unlikely that she can last as prime minister. To do so would require her to reinvent herself, and the public simply won’t buy that. Nor, judging by the fury of Tory supporters calling radio phone-in shows today, will the party membership.
Maybe – who knows? – she may yet negotiate such an astonishing deal with the European Union that she restores her reputation, serves a full term and secures her place in history. It seems implausible, but these are times when the unexpected has a tendency to happen; there were, for example, few commentators in 2010 who believed the Tory-LibDem coalition would last a full term. Much more likely, though, is that she’s remembered as the least successful prime minister of modern times.
If so, she has no one to blame but herself. This has been her election, her failure, her defeat. She was dealt a winning hand and she played it like someone who’d never seen a pack of cards before.