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UK parliamentary elections 2017 Theresa May Labour

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Tories in turmoil after May's election gamble backfires

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Britain's Primer Minister Theresa May leaves Downing Street on her way to Buckingham Palace after Britain's election Reuters/Hannah Mckay

The UK woke up to a hung parliament on Friday, after the Conservatives failed to secure a commanding majority in Thursday's general election. Instead Theresa May will form a minority government with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. Critics say she should quit.


Theresa May took a gamble and failed.

She asked for a strengthened mandate from the British people to push through tough talks on Brexit, the public rejected her manifesto.

"Not in a generation has a prime minister gone into an election and lost so big," Kevin Featherstone, professor of European politics at the London School of Economics, told RFI on Thursday night as the first exit polls began to emerge.

"It's a moral and political defeat. Even if the Conservatives win they lose and, even if Labour loses, they win," says Featherstone.

From 20-point lead to hung parliament

When Theresa May called the snap election in April, she was heading towards a landslide victory with polls giving her a 20-point lead over Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn.

How did it all unravel?

Experts say the Conservatives went into the 8 June election overly confident, which was reflected right down to their manifesto.

"It didn't cost some of its election promises and on some key policies it remained very unclear," explains Featherstone. "So during the course of the campaign they were regularly on the defensive. And what we underestimated is how comfortable Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader was, in terms of getting out and talking to large public rallies."

Voters met on the campaign trail said they were disappointed by May's lack of combativity, and absences at live TV debates with the other candidates.

May's TV no-show

The veneer of a slick campaign began to wear off when she sent Home Secretary Amber Rudd to debate on her behalf, whereas Corbyn showed up.

This was an election May had called and yet the perception was that she did not want to campaign.

"It's clear that this is a disaster for her," says Brian Glas, a professor of government relations at LSE, but says he wasn't surprised by the outcome. "Theresa May made a fundamental error in not debating. She came across as a robot and kept repeating the same slogan of a strong and stable leadership for the country."

For Paul Kelly of the LSE, the prime minister showed she was "neither strong nor stable", her campaign's key slogan.

"The campaign was very much about leadership, character, strength and at every stage of the campaign, she undermined her own case. And in a curious way enhanced the position of Jeremy Corbyn who appears to have principles and sticks to them."

The Conservative leader came under scrutiny for her U-turns on social care, where at one stage she'd suggested the elderly would have to sell off their homes to pay for treatment, a policy her opponents dubbed the "dementia tax".'

Conservative MP Graham Brady, speaking before the announcement of the results, acknowleged there had been mistakes.

"There's no doubt that some of the proposals about paying for social care for the elderly caused some difficulty in the campaign and there was a bit of a bump in the road and needed to be smoothened out. Thankfully it was made clear quite quickly that there would be an upper limit on the amount that anybody would be asked to pay."

But the damage had already been done.

And May's attempts to bring the focus back to Brexit and her "strong leadership" did not work.

Ultimately the problem for May, who was not the Tory leader at the last election, was making this election about her.

"She wanted a strong personal mandate and the public said no," says Kelly.

The irony is she weakened her own position by going into an election she did not have to call.

Brexit position weakened

What does the result mean for Brexit?

With talks supposed to start in 10 days' time, May will be perceived as a lame duck and her room for manoeuvre will be limited, argues Featherstone.

"She begins those negotiations with very little capital and instead will become dependent on factions within her party-- the hard Brexiteers -- who will be looking on at the first sign of her selling out on the Brexit agenda."

May will also be dependent on her new allies the Democratic Unionist Party, who have already said they'll reject a hard brexit.