What a shocking month it’s been for the prime minister. The three opinion polls published on 2 May all showed the Conservative Party on 47-48 per cent, a full 20 points clear of Labour. Yet the month ended with a YouGov projection showing the Tories falling short of an overall majority. It was hardly surprising that phone-in programmes were hearing a new conspiracy theory: that Theresa May – terrified of the complexity and implications of Brexit – was actively working for her own defeat.
We give no credence to this thinking, of course. Nor do we expect an outcome other than a Conservative victory next week. Nonetheless, the government’s script didn’t allow for margins this tight, or for May to fall so far so fast.
Some of the shift in the polls is simply the result of Jeremy Corbyn getting some exposure. Historically, this is where the Liberal Democrats score: almost invisible to the general public in peacetime, they would get some media coverage during the campaign, and thereby enjoy a little boost. Now it’s Corbyn who’s benefitting from people seeing him directly.
Over the last twenty months, he has had an appallingly negative media profile – largely of his own making, for those who remember that scowling refusal to speak to Sky News in 2015. But he’s learnt something since then, and now he tries to remember to smile as much as possible when he’s on camera. And many people, seeing pictures of a genial old uncle, twinkling with the memories of Christmas Past and with the promise of better days yet to come, have been surprised to find themselves warming to the Man They Call Jeremy.
But mostly, the swing of opinion has been squarely the consequence of Theresa May and her advisors. For a campaign that was meant to be based on personal competence, there has been a catastrophic sequence of errors.
First there was the manifesto. Even before the panic over the proposal to fund social care, there was the downright stupid inclusion of a free vote on fox-hunting. It’s not a big deal, it’s not something that most people care about in the normal way of things. But to resuscitate it sent all the wrong signals, confirming that the Conservatives were indeed only concerned with toffs’ issues; the idea of going back to hounds tearing foxes to pieces was sufficient to raise the spectre of the Nasty Party for many non-Corbynite Labour voters.
The intention was presumably to appeal to Tory supporters who had defected to UKIP. It was assumed that Corbyn had taken Labour so far to the Left that the centre could be taken for granted, and the pitch should be directed to the Right.
As things have turned out, however, Labour proved to be not quite as electorally naïve as had been assumed. The party hasn’t just played to the faithful. Instead it’s been trying to appeal to those who might be considered hostile to Corbyn: the middle classes (an end to tuition fees, a defence and expansion of universal benefits) and the elderly (keeping the triple-lock on pensions). There’s even been an outrageously bold move to claim Corbyn’s Labour as the party of the police and the security services.
This might be sleight of hand – there’s no mention of inheritance tax, for example, and there’s no doubt that hefty new property taxes will hit home-owners in the south-east – but it’s smarter politics than was expected. The Tories having vacated the centre, the ground was left free for Labour initiatives.
The most disgraceful error of the Conservative manifesto was, however, its sheer vapidity – the failure to sketch out any picture of where May wanted the country to be post-Brexit. The only serious indication was that policy on social care, which suggested a re-balancing of the roles of the state and the individual that was evidently not the new interventionism that the prime minister’s recent rhetoric on government has led many to anticipate. Worse, the subsequent backtracking on the so-dubbed ‘dementia tax’ (while claiming, absurdly and falsely, that ‘nothing has changed’) was characteristic of the overall failure of the campaign: a cap would be introduced, we were told, but no indication was given as to what it would be.
Here, as elsewhere, May is effectively asking the country for a blank cheque to do as she and her government wish after the election. It’s shoddy, dishonest and profoundly undemocratic.
The focus on character in the face of the Brexit negotiations is perfectly reasonable. So too is the denouncing of Corbyn as the terrorists’ friend. His pitch, after all, is that he’s a man of unwavering principle, a man who (unlike Diane Abbott) doesn’t change his opinion with his hairstyle, so his embrace of those who’ve fought against America, Israel and Britain is fair game.
But where’s the vision? What kind of Britain will emerge from a May government? In the absence of any indications from the prime minister, the electorate are entitled to fear the worst.
Even if May doesn’t quite snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, her performance this month has been woefully inadequate, not to say downright incompetent. She should be ashamed of herself. It doesn’t augur well for the future.
The Conservative campaign has, as you say, been marked by complacency and incompetence. There was an understandable desire to cash in on the large poll lead at the start of a campaign by getting a mandate to tackle difficult issues such as care for the elderly. May would have seen her policy as socialist as it involved taking wealth off the wealthy. Corbyn however was able to leap over her and seize the middle ground by appealing to the home-owning middle classes.
The Conservatives clearly underestimated just how fragile much of their support was. There are several reasons for this. There has been a rise in inequality since 2010; those who have had a squeeze on their standard of living were susceptible to a message that the process should be reversed. The issue of paying for care by selling the family home is sensitive, because so many home-owning parents have children with reasonable incomes but who can’t get on the housing ladder or have done so by taking out a ridiculous mortgage. A large proportion of the population does believe there is a ‘magic money tree’ and that it is called ‘QE’. They see no reason why the Government should balance its books anymore than they should. Finally, the British population is strongly opposed to more military interventions in the Middle East and is prepared to listen to Corbyn’s views on foreign policy.
Were Corbyn to do the unexpected and win on June 8th, the danger is that his support could disappear as quickly as it appeared. He might well pay for extra spending through QE, but the consequent fall in sterling would drive inflation up and increase pressure for a rise in interest rates. The fall-out from a rate rise would probably be catastrophic for the economy. Any extra spending on public services would be absorbed by continuing net migration. The EU has no intention of negotiating over BREXIT, believing that Corbyn will fold and give them what they want, especially the free movement of people. The British state will also do its best to frustrate many of Corbyn’s initiatives. For instance, expect police leaders to allow riots to occur in order to head off reforms such as a ban on stop and search. The volatility of the British electorate seen in this campaign is a sign of what’s yet to come.