Will Conservatives pay for sending British voters to the polls… again
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Britain’s ruling Conservatives gambled on Scottish independence and got lucky, then they gambled on Brexit and lost spectacularly. Now as Theresa May gambles with a snap election on Thursday, will voters still see her as a “safe pair of hands”?
The last time the UK held a snap election, in 1974, the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath chose to campaign on the slogan, “Who governs Britain?” The question was framed as a challenge to the then-mighty trade unions. But come election day, the answer from voters was, “Not you, Ted”.
Four decades on, May’s own bet on an early election bears uncanny similarities. In 1974, Britain had only just joined the EU; now it is looking for a way out. Heath said the country needed a “strong government” to make tough decisions; May endlessly repeats her mantra that only a “strong and stable” Tory majority can secure a good deal on Brexit.
Strong, stable, responsible, a party of government and a safe pair of hands: these are the keywords relentlessly invoked by the Conservatives, including the Brexiters among them (think Boris Johnson) who famously went AWOL after they were stunned by their own victory in last year’s referendum. It is a measure of their opponents’ weaknesses that the Tories can somehow cling on to such claims, having twice gambled with the country’s future and territorial integrity, for electoral gain.
A hung parliament?
May’s own gamble has electoral expediency written all over it. Despite her current majority of 17 seats in the House of Commons, the prime minister called the election to give herself breathing room and a stronger hand ahead of tricky Brexit negotiations, due to start on June 19.
To Tory strategists, the timing of the vote could hardly have been more opportune. The opposition Labour party was bitterly divided and in disarray after disastrous local government elections. It seemed a majority of over a hundred seats was within the Tories’ reach.
Instead, in just four weeks May’s Conservatives have seen their 20-point lead in the polls all but evaporate. While all surveys still point to a Tory win, some suggest the party will lose its overall majority, resulting in a “hung parliament”.
Think of the irony: An election designed to deliver a strong mandate for British “independence” from the EU, but leading instead to that most “continental” of concepts, a coalition government. How has it come to this?
By all accounts, May has endured a wretched campaign, marked by inconsistencies and spectacular U-turns -- starting with her decision to call an early vote despite repeated assurances that “there will be no snap election”.
The prime minister and her party have allowed the debate to drift away from Brexit with a raft of unpopular measures that included a surprise promise to reinstate fox hunting and a disastrous bid to make the elderly pay more towards their care, which May has been forced to water down.
The flip-flopping on the so-called “dementia tax” has undercut the prime minister’s self-styled “strong and stable” image, as has her refusal to take part in one-on-one debates with her opponents. As one interviewer put it, "If I was sitting in Brussels [...], I'd think 'she's a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire'."
The international context hasn’t helped either. May’s eagerness to cosy up to the US even as Britain drifts away from Europe has exposed her to accusations of being Trump’s poodle. This at a time when the US president has infuriated many with his pullout from the Paris climate deal and his tweets on the recent terrorist attack in London.
The horror in London, coming on the heels of previous terror attacks in Manchester and Westminster, has also cast a damaging spotlight on May’s legacy as home secretary (interior minister) between 2010 and 2016, her cuts in police numbers undermining the Conservatives’ traditional reputation as the party of law and order.
And all the while, the prime minister has singularly failed to persuade British voters of the need for this snap election, allowing them to see this as an opportunistic vanity contest.
‘Mr Corbyn isn’t quite so bad after all’
The Conservatives’ failure to make a positive case has contrasted with the surprising resurgence of the Labour party, whose manifesto for renationalisation, higher public spending and tax rises for the rich has gone down well with a wide pool of voters.
“Many people thought Labour would come up with a manifesto that was too extreme,” John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, told FRANCE 24. “But in the end, it has come up with something that point for point at least has proven to be more popular than the Conservatives’ austere message.”
Perhaps the most startling feature of this election campaign is the resurrection of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a soft-spoken veteran backbencher the Tories -- and many in his own camp -- had dismissed as a leftist loony.
Until a few weeks ago, the scruffy 68-year-old peace campaigner was widely regarded as unelectable. Most Labour MPs openly opposed him, and even his supporters conceded that he had failed to shine during his two years as opposition leader. As for the hugely influential tabloid press, it has relentlessly poured vitriol on the radical socialist, prompting a rare rebuke from veteran BBC broadcaster David Dimbleby, who accused the press of “lazy pessimism”.
To some extent the demonisation of Corbyn has been an asset at a time of mounting anti-establishment sentiment -- much as the repeated attempts by Labour’s top brass to unseat him have only made him more popular among the grassroots. But while Corbyn’s diehard supporters were very much a minority, the election campaign has allowed him to reach out to the many sceptics too.
“Because expectations of him were so low, many people have said ‘Hang on, Mr Corbyn isn’t quite so bad after all’,” said Curtice. “And therefore people who four weeks ago would have said they couldn’t possibly back Labour under Corbyn, have frankly changed their mind.”
May’s own goal
A lifelong Eurosceptic himself, and only a half-hearted Remainer during the Brexit campaign, Corbyn had looked weak on this election’s single most important question. But he has finally found his message on Brexit, stating that keeping Britain in the tariff-free single market is his utmost priority, and rubbishing May’s confrontational tactics and her slogan that “no deal [with the EU] is better than a bad deal”.
Unlike the prime minister, Corbyn appears to have relished every moment in the spotlight. On each outing, he has looked sharper and more convincing, whether taking questions from the public in televised debates or addressing huge, enthusiastic crowds up and down the country. There is no denying the fact that he has generated genuine fervor, where May elicits at best a shrug. But will it be enough to pull off an almighty upset?
Polls consistently show Corbyn's Labour is favoured by younger voters, whereas the over-50s have a strong preference for the Conservatives. The problem for Corbyn is that only the latter group are a dependable electorate. It would take a massive turnout among traditionally apathetic young voters to propel Corbyn to an unlikely victory -- the kind of surge that would have averted Brexit. Past elections suggest the opposite is more likely: when polls get it wrong it’s the Conservatives who do better than expected, not Labour.
But while a Conservative victory is still the likeliest outcome, it looks bound to be a Pyrrhic one. May doesn’t need to lose this election to emerge defeated. The whole point of this snap poll was to strengthen her negotiating hand. Anything short of a landslide will necessarily be seen as failure. And even if she wins, her EU counterparts at the negotiating campaign will remember that she wilted under pressure and shied away from debating her opponents.