LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain suffered a major setback in a tumultuous election on Thursday, losing her overall majority in Parliament and throwing her government into uncertainty less than two weeks before it is scheduled to begin negotiations over withdrawing from the European Union.
Mrs. May, the Conservative leader, called the snap election three years early, expecting to cruise to a smashing victory that would win her a mandate to see Britain through the long and difficult negotiations with European leaders over the terms of leaving the union.
But according to results reported early Friday morning, the extraordinary gamble Mrs. May made in calling the election backfired. She could no longer command enough seats to avoid a hung Parliament, meaning that no party has enough lawmakers to establish outright control.
With all but one of the 650 seats in the House of Commons accounted for, the BBC reported that Mrs. May’s Conservatives would remain the largest party. But they were projected to win only 318 seats, down from the 331 they won in 2015, and eight seats short of a majority.
Britons quickly started wondering whether Mrs. May would have to resign.
One Conservative lawmaker, Anna Soubry, said on national television that it had been a “dreadful campaign” and would force the prime minister to “consider her position.”
The opposition Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, was projected to be on track for 262 seats, up 30 from 2015, significantly elevating Mr. Corbyn’s standing after predictions that his party would be further weakened.
“Whatever the final result, we have already changed the face of British politics,” Mr. Corbyn said.
Last month, in an effort to show “just how much is at stake” in the election, Mrs. May acknowledged that even a small loss of seats would amount to a defeat.
“The cold, hard fact is that if I lose just six seats, I will lose this election, and Jeremy Corbyn will be sitting down to negotiate with the presidents, prime ministers and chancellors of Europe,” she wrote in The Daily Mail.
But early on Friday, Mrs. May hinted that her Conservative Party would try to form a government even if it did not have a majority, arguing that Britain needed “a period of stability.”
If the Conservative Party “has won the most seats and probably the most votes, then it will be incumbent on us,” she said.
The Scottish National Party was projected to fall to 35 seats from 56, while the centrist Liberal Democrats were projected to win 12 seats, up four from 2015.
The forecast raised the prospect that neither major party would be able to form a government without help from another party. If a coalition cannot be formed, another election could be in the offing.
And there was a wild card. Northern Ireland’s Sinn Fein party, which won seven seats, said it would not occupy them, in keeping with its longstanding policy. That would lower the threshold for Mrs. May’s party to establish an effective majority.
The former chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, said that for Mrs. May losing a majority would be “completely catastrophic” for her and the Conservative Party. But he added that it was also difficult to see how the Labour Party could put together a coalition government.
“So it’s on a real knife edge,” he said.
Clearly, Britons confounded expectations and the betting markets once again. The uncertainty could complicate Britain’s exit from the European Union, known as Brexit. Negotiations over the withdrawal are scheduled to start in just 11 days. European leaders want a stable, credible British government capable of negotiating, but Mrs. May’s plea to voters for a strong mandate for Brexit failed badly.
The official outcome of the vote may not be known until lunchtime on Friday. But the British pound fell sharply after a national exit poll showing that the Conservatives could lose their majority. Within seconds of the exit poll’s release, the pound lost more than 2 cents against the dollar, falling from $1.2955 to $1.2752.
Simon Hix, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics, said the projections showed the public’s resistance to the complete break from Europe that Mrs. May has championed. Still, Mrs. May was set to win, he asserted. “She hasn’t lost this election,” he said.
But Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, said that he was almost speechless at the projections. If they held, he said, Mrs. May “is gone.”
“It’s just a matter of time — even if they have a reduced majority,” he continued. “She asked for a mandate, she expected a strong endorsement, so her judgment is completely under question.”
“She was terrible in the campaign,” he added. “She is primarily the person who will be seen to be responsible for this.”
Kallum Pickering, a senior economist at Berenberg Bank in London, also suggested that Mrs. May was in trouble.
“Even if May manages to cling on to a majority, we see a real risk that her leadership is challenged, especially following an unsuccessful election campaign that has managed to both weaken her personal credibility and make far-left Labour leader Corbyn relevant again,” he said as the votes were being counted.
Given the two terrorist attacks that took place during the campaign, security was tight on Thursday as Britons voted, with a heavy police presence.
Maria Balas, 28, a waitress, said security was the prime issue. “England is under attack and at this time we need a strong leader more than ever,” Ms. Balas said after casting her vote for the governing Conservative Party. “I don’t like Theresa May, and I wouldn’t have bothered to vote if this election was all about giving her more power to take us into the mess of Brexit, but now we are dealing with a security crisis and I think she is the most qualified person in the running who can deal with that.”
In London’s eastern borough of Hackney, however, young people seemed more concerned about future job prospects.
“The Tories only care about the rich and their interests,” said Luke Wright, 26, who earns £7.50 an hour, or about $9.70, working at a stationery shop. “If Labour won I’d have a chance to make more cash and get out of this job that I’m overqualified for.”
Mrs. May, 60, rolled the dice on April 18 when she broke her promise not to call an early election, three years ahead of schedule, but did so only because she believed the dice were loaded in her favor.
She went into this election with a 20-point lead in most polls and a working majority of just 17 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament.
While she was personally against Britain’s exit from the European Union, or Brexit, in the June 2016 referendum, the vote in favor caused David Cameron to resign, and she emerged as a kind of accidental prime minister.
But she promised voters that she would honor the results of the referendum, using her reputation for toughness “to get the best deal for Britain.”
Now, her decision to call a snap election is raising comparisons to Mr. Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum in the first place.
“May is a policy politician; she does a very good job in office, and she is a lousy campaigner,” said Robert Worcester, the founder of the MORI/Ipsos polling and research organization. “There was just mistake after mistake after mistake coming through.”
Mrs. May pledged to curtail immigration, an effort to reach out to the nearly 13 percent of voters in 2015 who voted for the U.K. Independence Party, whose platform was anti-immigrant and pro-Brexit. Many of those voters, especially in the West Midlands and the north, were traditionally Labour supporters, but with the collapse of UKIP, many of them were thought to lean to the Conservatives.
That meant Labour-held seats seemed ripe for the picking, especially since northerners were not enamored of Mr. Corbyn, 68, a far-left urbanite. He seemed weak on defense and security, shaky on economic management and passionate about places like Venezuela and Nicaragua, and had once had strong sympathies for the Irish Republican Army and liked to make jam.
And the centrist Liberal Democrats, who emphasized rerunning the Brexit debate in a second referendum, were getting very little traction. While the business elite were laser-focused on the issue of Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, opinion polls showed that the general population had moved beyond that and cared more about domestic issues.
Strangely, for such an important issue, the economic impact of Brexit barely figured in this campaign, perhaps because its strongest effects, should they materialize, will not be felt for some time.
Mrs. May and the Conservatives ran an unusually personal campaign, trying to emphasize the differences between her and Mr. Corbyn on questions of leadership, reliability, economic competence and security, helped by the rabidly anti-Corbyn, pro-Brexit tabloid press.
But the Conservatives did not count on her poor performance on television and shaky presence on the campaign trail, particularly when confronted by hostile questioning. Rather than “strong and stable,” as her mantra went, Mrs. May could seem brittle and querulous, repeating slogans rather than dipping into substance.
Her party’s manifesto was also vague on figures, and her effort to find more funds for social benefits backfired when she announced, with little consultation with her cabinet colleagues, her intention to charge the better-off more for extended benefits, saying that old people could keep assets up to 100,000 pounds, including the value of their homes. Quickly labeled “the dementia tax,” it damaged her badly with the Conservatives’ main supporters: older Britons.
“Theresa May doesn’t look happy on the campaign trail,” said Mark Wickham-Jones, professor of political science at the University of Bristol. “And Labour have proved quite effective at chipping away at things like her reluctance to debate.”
At the same time, Mr. Corbyn, who survived an attempt last year by his own members of Parliament to unseat him as Labour leader, had a very good campaign. Appealing to the young, especially in the big cities, Mr. Corbyn ran on a platform promising more social justice, free college tuition, more money for the National Health Service and welfare, the re-nationalization of the railways and utilities, and much higher taxes on corporations and those earning over £80,000, about $104,000, a year.
His performances on television were calm and avuncular, with a touch of humor. And as the campaign wore on, he appeared to win back the support of most Labour voters in 2015, plus some Liberal Democrats and Greens.
The polls narrowed. But the Conservatives never lost their lead in any major poll. And party professionals on the ground, especially in marginal seats in the Midlands and the north that the Conservatives had targeted, reported continuing resistance to Mr. Corbyn as a credible prime minister.
The campaign was also marred by two terrorist attacks that caused numerous casualties, in Manchester on May 22 and then, last Saturday, in London. These also seemed to work against Mrs. May, at least at first. As home secretary for six years before becoming prime minister, she was criticized for the security services’ failure to stop the plots and for supporting cuts in beat policing.
Yet, late polling indicated that she benefited from her tough response — especially after the London attack, when she promised new counterterrorism legislation — and had widened the gap with Labour at the end.
The candidates spent the last day of official campaigning racing around the country — Mrs. May by jet, Mr. Corbyn by train. “They underestimated us, didn’t they?” he told a rally in Glasgow.
A correction was made on
June 8, 2017
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of parliamentary seats held by the Scottish National Party heading into the election. It was 56, not 59.
How we handle corrections
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Big Gamble Fails to Pay Off for Britain’s Leader. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain suffered a major setback in a tumultuous election on Thursday, losing her overall majority in Parliament and throwing her government into uncertainty less than two weeks before it is scheduled to begin negotiations over withdrawing from the European Union.Why did Theresa May lose? ›
Why did she go? Mrs May had been struggling to get parliamentary support for the legislation needed to implement the deal she had agreed with the EU on how the UK would leave the bloc. Her deal was rejected three times by Parliament. Efforts to find a compromise with the opposition Labour Party also failed.How many times was Theresa May defeated in Parliament? ›
Theresa May's government from 2017 to 2019 was defeated on 33 divisions in the House of Commons. Furthermore, to prevent recorded defeats, May's government typically whipped to abstain on non-binding Opposition Day motions it did not envisage winning on division.Did Theresa May support Brexit? ›
She wasn't one of the most vocal figures in the debate, but she stuck to the government line: that Britain would be better off remaining part of the European Union. As a high-level cabinet minister (May was the longest-serving Home Secretary for over a century), this is not surprising.How many seats did Conservatives lose in 2017? ›
The Conservatives, widely tipped for a landslide victory at the beginning of the campaign, won 318 seats – down 13 seats from the previous election and 8 short of the 326 needed for a majority. Meanwhile Labour, who were initially expected to lose seats, won 30 more than the 2015 election bringing them up to 262 seats.Why did Theresa May's Brexit deal fail? ›
The controversial Irish “backstop” – the mechanism designed to guarantee an open border on the island of Ireland – was one of the main reasons MPs rejected the agreement. Many “leavers” also argue that the deal leaves the UK too closely entangled with the EU and some say they would prefer no deal at all.How many Brexit votes did Theresa May lose? ›
Theresa May has sustained the heaviest parliamentary defeat of any British prime minister in the democratic era after MPs rejected her Brexit deal by a resounding majority of 230.Who was the longest serving MP in Parliament? ›
Charles Pelham Villiers was the longest continuously serving MP. He was elected in 1835 and remained an MP continuously for over 62 years until his death on 16 January 1898, aged 96 years 13 days.What is the Benn Act? ›
The Benn Act – or the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019 – is an Act of Parliament that provided a statutory obligation for the government to prevent a no deal Brexit on 31 October 2019 by requiring in the Prime Minister to ask for an extension of Article 50.When was the last Labour government? ›
Labour Government, 1997–2010.
On 29 March 2017, the new British government led by Theresa May formally notified the EU of the country's intention to withdraw, beginning the process of Brexit negotiations.Who pushed for Brexit? ›
On 13 April 2016 it was designated by the Electoral Commission as the official campaign in favour of leaving the European Union in the Referendum. Vote Leave was founded in October 2015 by political strategists Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings as a cross-party campaign.Which Tory MPs voted against Brexit? ›
Twelve Conservative MPs voted against the government: Grieve, Soubry, Heidi Allen, Kenneth Clarke, Jonathan Djanogly, Stephen Hammond, Oliver Heald, Nicky Morgan, Bob Neill, Antoinette Sandbach, John Stevenson and Sarah Wollaston.What majority did Theresa May get? ›
|Theresa May Conservative||32,620||57.7%|
|Joshua Reynolds Liberal Democrat||13,774||24.4%|
|Patrick McDonald Labour||7,882||14.0%|
|Emily Tomalin Green Party||2,216||3.9%|
|← outgoing members elected members →|
|All 650 seats in the House of Commons 326 seats needed for a majority|
|Turnout||67.3% ( 1.5 pp)|
This election saw a voter turnout of 61.11% compared to 59.40% in the previous election. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the election by an overwhelming three-quarters majority of 325 seats despite not projecting a chief ministerial candidate before the election.Who is shortest serving prime minister? ›
Liz Truss is the shortest-serving former prime minister, resigning after seven weeks. The previous shortest time served was George Canning, who served for less than four months before dying in office. Margaret Thatcher is the longest serving prime minister in modern history, serving for over 11 years.Why did Thatcher resign? ›
She resigned as prime minister and party leader in 1990, after a challenge was launched to her leadership, and was succeeded by John Major, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.Why did Tony Blair resign? ›
Events before resignation
As a combined result of the Blair–Brown pact, the Iraq War and low approval ratings, pressure built up within the Labour Party for Blair to resign. Over the summer of 2006, many MPs criticised Blair for not calling for a ceasefire in the Israel–Lebanon conflict.
Liz Truss's tenure as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom began on 6 September 2022 when she accepted an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to form a government, succeeding Boris Johnson, and ended 49 days later on 25 October upon her resignation.