It trumps David Cameron’s hostage-to-fortune blunder when he promised a referendum on EU membership. The May election result — it will always be so described — unexpectedly and all of a sudden, makes Brexit seem less than certain or at least far more complicated than it might have been. A fraught situation has been needlessly exacerbated.
This rattle-the-establishment outcome is layered with the deepest, darkest ironies. Ms May dressed her power grab as an opportunity to strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations but she achieved the very opposite. The Tories’ defeat — it is nothing else no matter how they harrumph and bleat — surpasses even the humiliation inflicted on Fianna Fáil in 2011, when they lost almost 60 deputies. Ms May’s decision to go to the country — described as an attempted coup by some of her opponents — has profoundly weakened her and her anti-EU courtiers. The hubris so alive in today’s Conservative Party has been punished; even the most robust of their pretend Galahads will struggle to find the silver lining in this dark cloud.
One of the delicious, and potentially dangerous, ironies is that Ms May has turned to Arlene Foster’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 seats may help her cling to power. The DUP has shown that it is a willing playmate. The party helped the “Leave” campaign by allowing itself be used as a conduit for Brexit campaign funding that fell outside election rules as they apply in England to buy advertising in London.
It is likely that Ms Foster will be the crocodile to Ms May’s reptile keeper. The prospect that Ms May may have to depend on the DUP, who seem to have forgotten the cold indifference of Ms May and her party to the consequences of Brexit for Ireland, especially if anything like a hard border is reintroduced, is sobering, if not deeply worrying. The leverage that would give the DUP would be unprecedented.
That prospect raises the intriguing — and hugely entertaining — prospect that Sinn Féin might have to wrestle with its conscience to reconsider its long-held policy of abstentionism. Any such selfless gesture, any such brave sacrifice of principle, would pull the crocodile’s teeth and probably render its keeper redundant. That possibility will move ever closer if the crocodile thrives and recovers the influenced needed to stop or at least slow Sinn Féin’s advance.
The DUP’s position, and the opportunity facing Sinn Féin are in stark contrast to the fate of moderate unionists and moderate nationalists. The SDLP and the UUP have been consigned to history, a saddening victory for extremism.
Those issues are, however, the flotsam and jetsam on this election. Jeremy Corbyn’s great achievement, and Labour’s rejuvenation defied all expectations in a most impressive way. That this was done against a background of a hostile and often dishonest campaign adds luster to Mr Corbyn’s achievement. His success also shows anyone who might listen, especially those about to assume power, that austerity policies have a finite life in a democracy and that equity will be asserted through the ballot box if it is not freely given. Leo Varadkar and his yet to be appointed cabinet might give this truth some consideration and act accordingly.
At this moment very little, even Brexit, is certain. It does seem reasonable to suggest, however, that Mrs May will be free, far sooner than she or her circle ever imagined she might be, to enjoy again walking in the Welsh hills.
That would hardly be a tragedy for anyone.