The fallout could include the end of Theresa May, a new election and even the reopening of the Brexit decision

PRIME ministers expect to see their authority battered, but in the election on June 8th Theresa May suffered a grievous blow—and at her own hands, too. In the small hours, exit polls and the early vote count seemed to point not to the solid victory she had hoped for, but to the most surprising election outcome of all: a hung parliament, or at best a tiny Tory majority.

As we went to press, the Tories were losing seats in London and other urban areas, especially where voters opposed Brexit last June. Gains they hoped to make in the north and West Midlands, partly thanks to a collapse of the UK Independence Party, did not offset this. Nor did losses by the Scottish Nationalists in Scotland.

The result is a disaster for Mrs May. She chose to call the election despite having a working, if small, parliamentary majority. And she chose to focus the campaign on her claim of being “strong and stable”. She emerges a diminished figure—probably irreparably so. The Tories have a deserved reputation for being ruthless with leaders who fail to bring home victory.

A campaign designed to establish her as a strong leader could hardly have failed more spectacularly. Her manifesto came as a shock even to many in her party, especially in its attacks on business and free markets. A U-turn over financing social care made Mrs May seem weak and wobbly. Her refusal to debate directly with opponents smacked of arrogance or, worse, a deep lack of self-belief.

Jeremy Corbyn, in contrast, had a good campaign. His speeches attracted the young, who voted in droves, as well as appealing to metropolitan pro-Europeans who were strongly against Mrs May’s plans for a hard Brexit. His manifesto was festooned with far-left pledges to tax business and the rich, to nationalise the railways and utilities, and to spend lots of public money. But his message resonated with voters fed up with austerity. His success puts him and his brand of socialism firmly in charge of Labour (see article).

What next? The biggest question is what will now happen to Brexit. Had Mrs May won with a substantial majority, she would shortly have begun Brexit talks (see article). But there must now be doubt about how such talks will go ahead. Both main parties accepted the result of last June’s referendum decision for Brexit. But now that voters have turned against the Tories partly because of their choice of an aggressively hard Brexit, the chances of a softer Brexit have risen.

Yet it is hard to see Mrs May winning support from any party besides the Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland, and they will barely have enough seats for her to secure a thin majority. The Lib Dems were so badly burnt by the coalition of 2010 with Mr Cameron that they could not conceive of repeating the experience. The Scottish Nationalists are viscerally opposed to the Conservatives.

Moreover, after this dismal performance, many in her party want to dump Mrs May, even if there is no obvious candidate to put in her place. She became leader by default after Mr Cameron resigned last June. Even before the election she was being criticised for not listening to business or to her own colleagues, and for relying on too small a coterie of advisers.

If the Tories cannot form a government, Mr Corbyn will have to be given a chance instead. Although his party has many fewer seats than the Conservatives, it is likely to be seen as more acceptable by both the Lib Dems and the Scottish Nationalists—more likely as a minority government than in a formal coalition. But he would surely have to promise both parties a softer Brexit, and quite possibly a second referendum on its terms. The eventual consequences of such a link-up are hard to predict, but they might yet include a reopening of the entire Brexit decision.

The likeliest outcome may be another election. That will happen if both Mrs May and Mr Corbyn fail to form a government that wins a confidence vote. But a new poll is likely even if Mr Corbyn succeeds, for a two- or three-way coalition or a minority government will be inherently unstable. The precedent is probably not 2010, when the Tory/Lib Dem coalition lasted a full five years, but 1974 and 1923, when fresh elections were held within a year.