Did Theresa May miscalculate her chances in an election when she called the UK General Election six weeks ago? Sure; it seems now she overestimated her appeal and that of her party, or at least underestimated the perception of Labour as unable to sell themselves better than the last go round. Probably more to the point, no one could have anticipated two horrific terror attacks in the two major cities of England - the Manchester bombing of an Arianna Grande concert, and a subsequent runaway van attack on London Bridge.
May is shaping up to be a complex presence in British leadership - people who don't like her or her policies, I think, underestimate how well her image of well dressed competence plays nationally and on the world stage. Yet she's presided, at best, over middling Tory governance - bobbling a problematic economy, health care woes in the NHS, tensions with immigrant communities and of course, the bumpy road to Brexit. That should, honestly, have led to even more of a drubbing for Tories than the fairly modest total loss of 12 seats, and something than other than a 5% gain in overall votes.
Though the election is being portrayed as a disaster for May, from a distance, I'd say wait and see. Sure, the internal tensions of the Conservative Party may want to punish her... but we got May because David Cameron flopped spectacularly on his own push for a No vote on Brexit, and it was in the temporal flux of replacing Cameron that it became abundantly clear that the Tories had a leadership bench problem. That problem, roughly a year later, isn't necessarily much better, and nothing shows that more thoroughly than the fact that about the only prominent alternative May faces is... Boris Johnson, one that will be hard for many to take seriously.
Moreover, as I said, May only lost 12 seats. Bad, sure, but it left her with a 57 seat plurality over Labour, and needing only a small number of seats to get a working majority, something she fairly easily accomplished adopting the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland - who are, yes, hardline conservatives with some extreme views, but as one might say, they'll do in a pinch. The election increased the total Tory share of the vote. And May was resoundingly successful in Scotland where the Conservatives were the main beneficiaries of the collapse of the Scottish National Party, the leaders of the Scot secessionist movement who had themselves soared into a major 3rd party role by fueling Labour's collapse - and the Brexit vote - as Labour lost dozens of seats last time. This time, they crawled back in Scotland, but still nowhere near their old dominance.
Indeed, the collapse of Scottish secession, paired with the death throes of UKIP, the anti immigrant hard right party that had driven the Brexit vote, are probably the real stories here, both signalling the end of hardline, dead-end revolts against the status quo. UKIP was never able to translate votes into seats, but their 10% decline in total votes was the biggest drop of Britain's major parties, just as the SNP was the largest single loss of seats. Together, they fueled the vote gains of both Labour and Conservatives, and Labour's total gain of 25+ seats, as well as offsetting the Tories losses to Labour in British urban areas.
Much has been made of the overall success of Jeremy Corbyn in growing and consolidating gains for Labour, and there's a lot of positive takeaways to be drawn; but Labour remained a fairly distant second, with no path to forming a government as a way to stop May. Much is being made of the youth vote and a Sanders-like hard left agenda. I tend to think pinning one's hopes to younger voters is illusory - we are in a phase of angry young voters who just want to be told what they want to hear (shades of their older right wing Uncles and Grandpas), and who don't like to contemplate the hard work of translating big ideas into workable policy. Corbyn, like Sanders, sold a dream of free college, public jobs and expanded supports for the poor, all laudable. All, likely, impossible to make real. Further, Corbyn is pretty much no one's idea of "tough on terrorism" and although he made some hay pushing for expanding police hiring, in the wake of the terror incidents, there was no move to him over May. For a population where terror threats are very real, perceptions of Labour as weak won't help.
What hurt May, though, was the links between Brexit, the hard right in Europe and Donald Trump. It surely hurt May that Trump kept inserting himself into the terror news in all the wrong ways, most of all in a needless fight with the popular Mayor of London. Nor did it help that May, as Home Secretary, was directly involved in decisions to identify and deal with terror threats. Yet, despite that, she still returns to Number 10. While liberals here and over in England mutter darkly about May doing hardline measures to attack terrorism, there's little left that's harder than what the UK already has and does with cameras and a more intrusive state. Calling this a "referendum on Trump" or some other rejection of conservatism is both obvious and inaccurate. May, more than anything, represents sticking to what they're already doing, because they don't know what else to do, and that, after all, won the day, if less enthusiastically than anyone might have thought.
And that, Brexit included, is why putting too much stock in the revolution or Labour's future prospects seems misplaced. May might go, but Conservatives remain in control regardless. Majorities voted for her approach to terror and her approach to Brexit (and, just remember too, Corbyn supported Brexit - that's part of how he replaced Ed Milliband). There was, and is, deep dissatisfaction with economic opportunity that yes, mirrors our own - and, interestingly, UKIP's deserting voters seem to have been a big part of the run to Labour, along with the young. More than before, the UK divides between depressed urban centers and smaller towns and countryside areas that don't want to abandon traditional notions. Both parties have a struggle to get past about 40% appeal - but Labour's additional headache is that concentrated voters in urban areas make it hard to get the spread needed that translates into dozens more seats in Parliament.
It also probably doesn't help that in some more upscale urban areas, the real gains were made by the Liberal Democrats, who bounced back, if mildly, from their own drubbing in the Brexit vote - Bath, Oxford and other areas showed gains, suggesting that the Lib Dems still attract the educated professionals Labour ought to be able to count on for themselves. That can't help. And like Sanders, I'm not convinced Corbyn represents a way to broaden out Labour's appeal beyond where he got it this time. Arguably, the deep losses Labour endured in the Brexit vote overstated the extent of discontent, and Corbyn has presided over a natural reassorting that returns Labour to its natural, but secondary, status. The road from here to majority status isn't actually clear.
The problem for May is governing in a way that shows she gets it - there needs to be some changes, some renewed sense of opportunity, some better assimilation and adaptation to the changed world of immigrants in the UK. One easy fix, after all, would be making Corbyn's call for expanded police into her own strategy. Grows jobs, addresses safety, shows a commitment to public service. Actually managing Brexit and translating the vague and frightening prospects still hanging over the UK and Europe into coherent policy would also help. My guess is May's better positioned to do this than many realize, even if, policy-wise, she's been thoroughly lackluster. Her way may be playing it overly safe - but the real lesson of the election, for now, is that, so far, she's the only game in town. Corbyn's successes may give him some heft, and May could get tossed. But the world she made - a world of Brexit, uncertain threats, and economic discomfort will still be there. No one, it seems, likes that world. And that's no answer at all.