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The anti-Brexit campaign is dead and four other lessons from the general election

Theresa May is a fragile prime minister, a new age of intervention has begun and the two party system is back.

By George Eaton

The anti-Brexit campaign is dead

Remainers vowed to use the general election to take revenge. In defiance of the 48 per cent who voted for EU membership, Theresa May had committed to a “hard Brexit”. Traditional party allegiances, it was said, would be cast aside as voters punished the Prime Minister.

But the election has merely confirmed that Brexit is unstoppable. Though the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats expect to gain seats, they have not enjoyed the surge that some anticipated. In Scotland, the SNP similarly failed to reap a Brexit bonus. May is set to secure an unambiguous mandate for single market withdrawal.

This outcome is less surprising than it may seem. As I wrote early in the campaign, “the 48 per cent” of Remain rhetoric do not exist. Around 70 per cent of voters (including a third of Remainers) have accepted the result and believe the priority is to achieve the best possible deal. Though this was billed as “the Brexit election”, voters have been more concerned with traditional issues such as health and education. Labour’s decision to vote for Article 50 and oppose a second referendum – widely condemned by Remainers – has been vindicated. On Brexit, the two main parties’ minds are settled – and so is the electorate’s.

Theresa May is a fragile Prime Minister

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Theresa May called the general election in more favourable circumstances than any prime minister since 1945. The Conservatives had a 19-point poll lead. Labour appeared the weakest opposition for decades. Many anticipated a remorseless march to victory.

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But the Prime Minister stumbled, rather than strode, towards the finishing line. The “dementia tax”, and May’s painfully awkward retreat, permanently damaged her “strong and stable” brand. Her personal ratings, and those of her party, sharply fell, to the point where Labour and Jeremy Corbyn were suddenly competitive. Unlike Cameron in 2015, May had never fought a general election before – and it badly showed.

Though campaigns are ultimately judged by results (as the Tories’ supposedly “dismal” 2015 campaign was), Conservative MPs will not forget May’s shortcomings regardless of the outcome. The Prime Minister will be ordered to expand her tight inner circle and to adopt a more consultative approach. Should she continue to falter, the regidical Conservatives will not hesitate to oust her before the next general election (should May even wish to fight it). Her support base in the party is broad but shallow.

After U-turning on an early election, the National Insurance increase and social care – from a position of strength – the question remains whether May is prepared to face down sustained opposition. Tory backbenchers and EU negotiators alike will test her nerve.

A new age of interventionism has begun

For decades, the state appeared to be in retreat. “Big government” was said to have been buried for good. But at this election, Leviathan rose from the depths. Both the Conservatives and Labour put forward their most interventionist manifestos since the 1970s. Though Theresa May’s policies did not match her more radical rhetoric, her promise to cap energy bills, build a new generation of council homes and increase workers’ rights still marked a break with Thatcherite orthodoxy. After the Tories’ flirtation with libertarianism under David Cameron, the Prime Minister intends to roll forward the frontiers of the security state and restrict immigration still further. Liberals and some business leaders feel politically homeless.

After Ed Miliband’s cautious interventionism, Jeremy Corbyn fulfilled his radical promise, vowing to renationalise the railways, Royal Mail, the water industry and the energy grid, to reinstate collective bargaining, to abolish tuition fees and to increase taxes on those earning over £80,000. Whoever eventually follows Corbyn (and the Labour leader is going nowhere for now), will need to embrace significant parts of this programme.

May, meanwhile, swiftly grapsed that Leave voters craved more, not less, interventionism. The upheaval that results from EU state will necessitate a still greater role for government. Brexit may have been a libertarian dream but it has become a statist one.

The two-party system is back

After 2015, it was said that the UK had entered a new era of multi-party politics. Ukip were third by votes, the SNP third by seats and the Greens were rising. But this election has shown how resilient the dinosaurs of British politics are. The Conservatives, a party written off as recently as 2005, are projected to achieve their best result since 1992 and are enjoying a sustained recovery in Scotland. Rather than splitting the Tories, Brexit has reunited the right as Ukip has collapsed. David Cameron’s accidental legacy to May has proved an electoral gift. An increased Conservative majority would confirm that 2010’s hung parliament was the exception, not the rule.

Though Labour is facing its third successive election defeat, it has repelled all threats to its status as the main opposition party. Corbyn’s left-wing programme has crowded out political space for the Liberal Democrats and the Greens and there are hints of a recovery in Scotland. Though talk of a new centrist party persists, the election has shown why it would struggle. For those looking to expel the Conservatives from office, Labour will remain the only vehicle available.

Age, not class, is now the defining divide

Where once it was someone’s occupation that was the best guide to their voting intention, it is now their age. Labour has consistently enjoyed elephantine leads among the young (62-18 in the final YouGov poll), while the Tories have seen the same among the old (56-23). Remarkably, in view of its history, support for Jeremy Corbyn’s party among ABC1s now exceeds that among C2DEs (36-35).

By pledging to abolish tuition fees (at £11.2bn – the most expensive item in Labour’s manifesto), and reimburse current students, Corbyn has given young people a sharp incentive to turn out. Tonight’s result will hinge on the extent to which they do. By pledging to remove the “triple lock” on the state pension and to means-test Winter Fuel Payments, the Conservatives have extended austerity to the old (as David Cameron never did). But May’s U-turn on the “dementia tax” – the first by a Prime Minister during a general election campaign – shows the enduring power of the grey vote.