There’s just under a week until Britain votes and it is fair to say that the campaign has not gone as Theresa May hoped. When she called a snap election, the Prime Minister was congratulated by most of her party for sharp political judgement. Yes, some Ministers and aides were angry and felt misled by her previous insistence that there would be no early vote. But with Jeremy Corbyn polling abysmally and Labour in a state of Cold War with itself, victory seemed inevitable. It is still almost certain that the Conservative Party will be in a position to form the next Government. But few people are talking seriously now about a majority in three figures and some Tory MPs and commentators now fear that all this may have been for nought – that they could have run all this way simply to stand still. Such a result, with Mrs. May securing roughly the same result as David Cameron in 2015, would be a disaster for her personally and politically. It could prove fatal.
What has gone wrong for May and her loyal band of advisers? Partly this is a product of underestimating Jeremy Corbyn. Tory advisers, along with many in the media, have seen the Labour Leader as a lame duck looking for a way to die – ‘He doesn’t even want it’, ‘the fight’s gone out of him’. To be fair to the Government, this has also been the (wishful) thinking of many Labour MPs and staffers. It turns out that while Corbyn is visibly bored and tired by the rigmarole of leading itself, campaigning brings him to life (as it did in his two, successful, leadership battles). He has run an energetic and reasonably focused general election campaign centred on a set of popular retail offers. His slip-ups, on Women’s Hour for instance, have been humiliating but have failed to do the kind of damage that they would have done to Ed Miliband – in part because Corbyn’s brand is, like Trump’s, not built on his abilities as a smooth talking professional politician.
Alongside the underestimation of Corbyn the man, the Tories have been relying on an overestimation of the problems posed by Corbyn the activist. Connections to the IRA, Hamas, Hezbollah and domestic jihadi groups simply haven’t shocked Labour voters in the way Lynton Crosby hoped. In part this is because these relationships have been trailed so much in the media over the last year, they are ‘baked in’ as campaign professionals say. It is also the case that younger voters – who have flocked to Corbyn and whose support is the primary factor in YouGov’s outlier poll showing Labour just 3 points behind the Conservatives – simply do not remember the terror that Irish republican movements brought to the UK. Finally, for all his talk of a more honest politics, Corbyn has proven remarkably adept at deploying half-truths and creative rewriting when questioned directly about these relationships.
But it is not simply Corbyn’s relative robustness that has come as a surprise, it is also the Prime Minister’s shyness. She has refused to engage directly with her opponent in a debate, cancelled interviews that look tricky and has sent trusted Ministers into battle rather than take up the sabre herself. This may not end up mattering much to voters, but it has further soured her relationship with the political commentariat and has harmed her reputation as a tough, ‘bloody difficult’ woman.
Those closest to May cast the last week as a classic Tory campaign wobble – as in 1987 – and urge calm to panicking MPs. They point out that ICM has the Conservative Party on a convincing double digit lead and that YouGov’s methodology has proved controversial within the polling community. They also argue that, despite the row over social care reform, May’s ‘firewall’ of older voters (who are much more likely to actually vote) remains strong. Finally, they remain confident that Corbyn is piling up votes in the cities – where Labour is safest – but losing the battle in England’s small town marginals, where it matters.
Those around the Prime Minister wanted this election to secure a mandate – for Brexit, for transformational change – not, necessarily a landslide. And they believe that mandate is within their grasp. But what success looks like is in dispute within the Tory rank and file. Expectations have not been managed well. If ‘Theresa May’s Team’ romps home with a majority of 80 or more, the sceptics will have to bite their tongues. If she secures 50 she is safe, for now. Anything around the 30 mark will leave May vulnerable to ambitious assassins from within her own rank and file.
Next Thursday Britain will vote on who their next Government should be. It remains overwhelmingly likely that the Conservatives will be the largest party. But both leaders’ futures hang in the balance. A reenergised Corbyn may well defeat his party’s low expectations and create an excuse to stay on. Mrs. May needs to meet her, more ruthless, party’s high expectations if she is to retain their support and loyalty. This has been one of the most ‘presidential’ elections in British history. The downside of that for the leaders is that, in the end, it is all down to them.
Scores on the Doors:
Poll of Polls (Britain Elects; June 2): Con 44.3; Lab 35.2; Lib Dem 8.2; UKIP 4.4; Grn 2.2
Bookies’ Odds (Ladbrokes GE Overall Majority): Con Maj 1/4; No Overall Maj 9/2; Labour Maj 10/1; Lib Dem Maj 500/1; UKIP Maj 1,000/1
Quote of the Week: “I love a group hug meself.” Jeremy Corbyn responds after being asked if he’ll be ready for a post-election reconciliatory group hug with the critics inside his own party.