Labor Party gains in vote
Early results show voters did not give her the decisive mandate she sought.
Exit polls project that Britain’s Conservative Party will fail to hold a majority in Parliament.
LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election seven weeks ago in a bid to strengthen her hand as she embarked on two years of divorce negotiations with her European Union counterparts.
The Conservative Party leader said she was seeking a decisive mandate from the electorate so she could get the best deal for the country in the “Brexit” talks.
On Thursday evening, as the first exit polls were released after a short but intense campaign, it appeared that her gamble had probably failed to pay off.
The polling suggested that the Conservative Party would win more seats than any other, but not enough to gain an overall majority in the 650-seat House of Commons, which could leave the country with a hung Parliament.
That would force May to seek a coalition with one or more other parties in order to form a government.
Meanwhile, the main opposition Labor Party appeared to have fared much better than many had initially expected. Exit polls suggested it could gain more than 30 seats, with the Conservatives perhaps losing 17.
Those results would have far-reaching implications for May’s Brexit strategy in the months and years ahead.
Financial markets were already unnerved by the prospect of Britain being thrown into a period of more uncertainty, with the pound dropping sharply against the euro and the dollar as the poll results came out.
Paul Nutall, the leader of the UK Independence Party, was quick to heap scorn on May for her gamble.
“If the exit poll is true then Theresa May has put Brexit in jeopardy,” he wrote on Twitter. “I said at the start this election was wrong. Hubris.”
And former Conservative Party Chancellor George Osborne said her very future as prime minister could be in jeopardy.
“Clearly if she’s got a worse result than two years ago and is almost unable to form a government, then she I doubt will survive in the long term as Conservative Party leader,” he said.
Still, Brexit is unlikely to be derailed entirely, because the parties with the largest vote share — Conservative and Labor — have agreed to accept the will of the people from last June’s referendum. The vote to leave the EU won, 52% to 48%, even as many lawmakers backed the “Remain” side.
The Liberal Democratic Party remained staunchly opposed to leaving the EU, hoping to win over the disgruntled 48% by pledging to hold another referendum on the issue.
But the idea gained little traction. Polls show that although the vast majority of those who voted to remain haven’t changed their mind, about half are now resigned to its inevitability and don’t want to be drawn into another divisive vote.
Exit polls suggested the Liberal Democrats would gain only six more seats nationwide.
May had looked unassailable at the start of campaign and was widely seen as a strong leader during a time of turmoil.
Even though she was not elected to office — having succeeded David Cameron after he stepped down as prime minister after backing the failed Remain side — she quickly took the helm and promised to united the country and get Britain the best possible deal.
She initially said she would not call an election until the current parliamentary term expired in 2020, because the country needed a period of stability.
But in April, she announced she had decided “with reluctance” that an election was necessary to end the infighting that had beset Parliament and the country since the Brexit vote.
Her decision was made while walking with her husband, Philip, in the Welsh hills and came after she had triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which formally began the two-year divorce proceedings with the remaining 27 EU members.
May had made her vision for Brexit clear, stating that there could be no “half in, half out” deal.
She said Britain was prepared to withdraw from the European single market — a central tenet of the European Union that guarantees the free movement of goods, capital, services and people — and also the customs union, which guarantees tariff-free trade within Europe.
“No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” May said during a January speech.
This caused alarm among detractors who argued that this so-called hard Brexit was something no one had voted for.
The Labor Party, meanwhile, said that it would seek to pursue a more tempered approach to Brexit, including attempting to negotiate for Britain to remain in the customs union.
That “soft Brexit” position could now be more likely if May has to get lawmakers from other parties to support her Brexit strategy and being seen as weak at home could, ironically, make her negotiating life a lot easier.
“If you have a weak position back home, you have a very strengthened position in negotiations as other countries know you might not be able to get the deal through Parliament,” said Tim Oliver, an associate at LSE IDEAS, a foreign policy think tank at the London School of Economics.
“From the EU perspective, if you’ve got a massive majority, you can make concessions. If you have a small majority, you can say, ‘Cut me some slack.’ ”
Regardless of the final election results, the prime minister that the country wakes up to Friday morning will have a huge job ahead.
THE LABOR PARTY, under Jeremy Corbyn, appears to have fared much better than expected. Exit polls suggest Labor could gain more than 30 seats.
PRIME MINISTER Theresa May and husband Philip in Maidenhead, England. Polls indicate her Conservative Party would lack an overall majority.