Listen to this article
It was the night that was supposed to cement Theresa May’s hold on power and her party — yet, as election results came in early on Friday, her position had been so dramatically weakened that rumours of a leadership challenge began to swirl.
Mrs May fell victim to a lacklustre and overconfident campaign that looked set to exacerbate her problems in the party because it had excluded many Conservative MPs and activists.
The sense of crisis will be all the greater because the election result comes just days before the UK begins Brexit negotiations with Brussels, bringing the prospect of compromises that are likely to be difficult to sell to hardliners within the fractious Tory party.
One senior Conservative said projections showing the Conservatives’ losing their majority would have to be “dramatically out” for the party to have achieved “something decent”.
“A lot of people in the constituencies were angry at the fact that they were ignored, the fact that the Conservative party was so marginalised in terms of the campaign and it was all ‘Theresa May’s team’,” the person said.
George Osborne, the former Tory chancellor, said on ITV that the projected results would be “catastrophic” for Mrs May.
“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,” Mr Osborne said.
Another prominent Conservative said that if the party emerged with fewer seats than it held before the election, Mrs May would be “in trouble”. In the last parliament, the Tories held 331 seats.
“There will be people who have lost, who will think why the hell did they lose,” the person said. “They will also think, ‘We’ve been through all this pain and not gained that much’.”
Rumours quickly started to swirl that Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, was beginning moves to challenge Mrs May for the Conservative party’s leadership, although Mr Johnson refused to comment when arriving for his own election count.
Liam Fox, another prominent Leave-supporting cabinet minister, notably failed to voice support for the prime minister when questioned about her future on television.
Anna Soubry, meanwhile, said the prime minister would have to “consider her position”.
It was unclear early on Friday whether Conservatives would have the stomach to challenge Mrs May if the party was also fighting to put together a coalition or minority government.
Some in the party were quick to defend the prime minister. Michael Fallon, the party chairman, insisted on the BBC that it had been the “right thing to do” to call the election to seek a new mandate.
Priti Patel, international development secretary, said the reason for calling the election was to show the country faced a “choice of leadership”.
“There will be big choices we have to make as a country,” Ms Patel said. “That’s what the election campaign has been about for the Conservative party.”
Yet, as the night wore on, it was looking increasingly likely that Mrs May’s gamble on seeking to exploit a commanding, 20-point opinion poll lead over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party would prove an enormous miscalculation.
She sought in the course of the election to win a mandate not only for a strong Brexit negotiating position but also to tackle some of the UK’s most intractable long-term problems, notably a policy on social care under which homeowners saddled with long-term social care bills could would lose all but £100,000 of the value of their homes.
She was forced to reversed that manifesto promise, in effect, abandoning her campaign slogan that she offered “strong and stable leadership”.
The party also insisted on picking an untried group of candidates, most of them local councillors, in the hope of ensuring a more pliable future Conservative parliamentary party.
Those nondescript candidates — some of whom refused to say how they had voted in last year’s Brexit referendum — appear to have done little to add to voters’ enthusiasm for Mrs May’s party.
“Even if the result is anywhere near this, it’s a catastrophic error,” John McDonnell, the Labour shadow chancellor, said on the BBC of the decision to call the election.
The Conservatives proved far less effective than expected at exploiting the perceived weaknesses of the Labour party, including Mr Corbyn’s past links with radical Irish republicanism. Labour’s manifesto, with its generous spending pledges, proved far more attractive to voters than the bitter medicine of the Conservative document.
That poses the risk for the party of a return to the chaotic years of the 1990s, when John Major’s weak government was regularly rocked by backbench rebellions. One potential source of discontent is Mrs May’s determination to overturn free-market orthodoxy, with pledges to limit energy bills and to involve local councils in future housebuilding programmes.
That could leave a group of disgruntled Thatcherite MPs, such as John Redwood, as a focus of discontent within the parliamentary party sniping at Mrs May.