Theresa May is set for re-election later this week in the UK’s general election, but has personally lost stature in a campaign focused on her leadership. Even if she wins well she has been damaged by her performance. Instead of being the “coronation” her advisers expected the Prime Minister, who is supposed to offer strong and stable” leadership, has at times looked brittle and even rattled.
Worst of all she was forced to publicly repudiate major policy commitments she made only days before, following a backlash against her social care policies and so called “dementia tax.” May had been described as the only leader tough enough to take on the EU over Brexit. Yet she flip-flopped on core manifesto promises and then compounding her embarrassment by denying she had done so. She also refused to debate Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The mood among commentators suddenly became “if she’s not confident enough to handle Corbyn or strong enough to stick to her policies how can she take on tough EU negotiators?”
Even May’s own party is troubled by her performance, particularly against Corbyn who is widely perceived to be weak, unelectable and unfit for the top job. May had been vehement there was no need for an election prior to the due date in 2020. She publicly repeated ruling out a snap poll on seven occasions. She was pressured into it by advisers who convinced her there couldn’t be a better time politically. The Prime Minister had a massive lead in leadership ratings and these polls also pointed to a triumph over Labour especially in its traditional regional strongholds which voted overwhelmingly for Brexit in last year’s referendum. The Tories believed a large number of seats in the Midlands were up for grabs. Internal party criticism of May’s strategy, tactics and staff is already bubbling out in the media.
There have been other problems with the campaign. The Tories, backed by right wing newspapers, launched a series of attacks, amplified by lurid headlines, highlighting Corbyn’s inadequacies, including his opposition to Britain’s nuclear deterrent and alleged ties or sympathies with the IRA, Hamas and a range of other causes deemed to be anti-British. However, the public had already made up their minds that Corbyn wasn’t suited to occupy No 10. The way he has been demonised during the campaign has only succeeded in winning him some sympathy and given him anti-establishment cult status with young voters. Looking relaxed, Corbyn has concentrated on restoring funding to the UK’s social services, such as the NHS where the Tories are most vulnerable. The Conservatives are now back peddling, refocusing on Brexit, national security and highlighting polls showing Corbyn might win in order to avoid a protest vote in his favour.
Polls show more than a third of voters now have a more negative opinion of the Prime Minister than they did at the beginning of the campaign, while 39% claim their view of Corbyn has improved. The Conservatives’ lead has also fallen dramatically from more than 20% at the start of the campaign to less than 10%, and much closer in some polls in recent days. But we have to be cautious in interpreting UK polls. Voter turnout can be a major factor. Corbyn is doing well with young people but at the last election in 2015 less than half of 18 to 24 year olds bothered to vote.
Minor parties were expecting to do well in this election but there is no sign of that. The Lib Dems were hoping to prise off Labour moderates who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Corbyn and be a lightning rod for those 48% of UK voters who voted Remain in the EU referendum. Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has not been able to connect with voters.
This election should have been the perfect opportunity for right wing UKIP to step up after its Brexit victory and secure disaffected Labour voters in the north of England and to “sell” themselves as the best vehicle to hold the Tories’ feet to the fire on Brexit terms. Instead UKIP has been in meltdown with popular former leader Nigel Farage resigning, withdrawing his resignation and then resigning again, followed by several botched attempts to find a replacement. UKIP will receive nowhere near the 3.8 million votes obtained in 2015.
Labour Is likely to pile up big majorities in its safe seats in anti-Brexit London and in University areas but fail to pick up the marginal seats required to win government. Privately Tory insiders predict a majority of 65 to 85% less than half Tony Blair’s landslide victories, which saw a 179 seat majority in 1997 with a net loss of just five of those seats in 2001. Meanwhile, Labour moderates are terrified a better than expected result for Corbyn could cement him into the Labour leadership and ensure a continuation of policies guaranteeing only enduring opposition and permanent political irrelevance.
The last days of this campaign will be fought in the shadow of yet another terrible terrorist attack, this time in London. National security and law and order are dominating the final days of this campaign. May proclaimed “enough is enough” and promised a tougher approach to terrorism. Critics quickly pointed out that until she became Prime Minister for six years she was Home Secretary, responsible for police and anti-terrorism. She presided over big staffing cuts to police numbers. Theresa May will win and could still win well but many of her team will not be happy. They will feel that their best opportunity to secure political dominance for another decade has been squandered. Some will also question their Prime Minister’s strength and ability to get the best deal for Britain in Brexit talks that start within days.
Hon Mike Rann CNZM received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Auckland and completed his Masters in Political Studies at the University of Auckland in the 1970s. He has served as Australia’s Ambassador to Italy and High Commissioner to the UK. From 2002 to 2011 he was Premier of South Australia. He now lives and works in the UK and Italy and is Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute of King’s College London. He is CEO of the Rann Strategy Group and he remains a New Zealand citizen.