Election 2017

Election results: The gamble that settled nothing

Palmerston the Foreign Office cat pads past 10 Downing Street Image copyright Getty Images

The prospect of a hung parliament appears to have taken most people by surprise. But what does it mean for how the UK will be governed?

Perhaps everyone should have known. The age of political convulsion hasn't yet passed.

Indeed, this election result isn't just a surprise that will be accommodated with some kind of changing of the guard, after which everything settles down.

Instead, it is a prelude to a time of uncertainty that's bound to last.

A contest that Prime Minister Theresa May called to give her a clear mandate to negotiate Britain's departure from the European Union - and in truth to give her room for the compromises she knows will be necessary - has delivered the opposite.

A minority government condemned to live day to day, fearful of the next big parliamentary vote.

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Image caption Theresa May: "Still in office but with so much power gone"

Theresa May didn't only place herself at the head of the Conservative campaign - she personalised it to a remarkable degree, pulling it round herself like a warrior's suit of armour.

Give me "my" majority, she seemed to say. The voters declined.

And by the end of the night she was contemplating the most pyrrhic of victories.

Still in office, but with so much power gone.

No British election for more than a generation has set such a puzzle.

Negotiations for departure from the European Union were supposed to start in less than two weeks.

But a government without a working majority in Parliament is ill-equipped.

And remember that there is a substantial group of Conservatives who never wanted Brexit in the first place, and may - paradoxically - be rather emboldened by their party's failure to win outright.

All this and Jeremy Corbyn too.

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Like a British version of Senator Bernie Sanders, he was mocked in his own Labour party - the outsider who was said not to be serious about government, but who enthused a young army that, for once, turned out to vote.

He's got many fewer seats than the Conservatives, but with other smaller opposition parties ready to co-operate, his parliamentary power is formidable.

That means that this weekend Theresa May is a hugely diminished figure.

One former head of the civil service, Andrew Turnbull, even went public as the results were coming in to say that she should resign.

Why? Back came the answer - she's not up to the job.

Among Conservatives, shaken by their failure to confront effectively the most left-wing Labour campaign in living memory, there's a shiver of fear - might they be heading for another divisive leadership election?

Some of them will be reflecting on the trouble you get from referendums in which everything is reduced to an all too simple question of "yes" or "no".

The vote to leave the European Union last year split the country nearly down the middle.

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It removed one prime minister - David Cameron - from office, prompted Mrs May to have this election and has now saddled her, and the country, with a government doomed to endure a hand-to-mouth existence.

It was that wise old Frenchman, Francois Mitterrand, who once said that the trouble with referendums was that too many people voted on a question that hadn't been asked.

It was supposed to settle everything and has settled nothing.

Britain embarks on a negotiation with 27 European countries without a settled view on the outcome it wants and with a government mired in uncertainty.

Indeed, the happiest people around, as dawn broke on this remarkable, unexpected election result, were those who want it all to be a muddle - to slow the whole thing down.

Perhaps to prepare the ground for another referendum on the terms or - strange though it seems to say it so soon - another election.

Everything's in flux.

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The only flicker of light in the gloom for Theresa May is that the Conservatives' performance in Scotland - where the Nationalists lost 21 of their 56 seats - certainly put to bed another referendum on Scottish independence.

But it's a meagre piece of compensation.

Those of us who watched the Brexit vote, Donald Trump's victory soon afterwards, and saw 11 million people vote for the far-right in France, maybe thought we'd seen it all.

But there was more to come.

A prime minister who asked for trust was denied it.

The opposition cry as the votes rolled in was - she's been found out.

Cruel, but maybe true.

Though it was presented as an election to produce "strength and stability" the voters sensed it was too personal: "Give me my majority".

So they decided to say "No".

Anyone who thinks the age of awkwardness is over, is wrong.