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UK election: Tories to win but Theresa May diminished

Labour will pile up big majorities in anti-Brexit London and in university areas but will fail to pick up marginal seats required to do well, let alone win.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May at a campaign event last week. (Photo by Hannah McKay/Getty Images)
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May at a campaign event last week. (Photo by Hannah McKay/Getty Images)
Published 6 Jun 2017   Follow @Mike_Rann

Theresa May is set to secure a comfortable majority for the Tories 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 handily, she has been damaged within her party and in the public's eye by her own campaign performance.  Instead of being the 'coronation' her advisers expected, the Prime Minister who said only she offered 'strong and stable leadership', has at times looked brittle and even rattled.  

There was a backlash against her pledge to cut free school meals, stop winter fuel allowances for better-off pensioners, and abolish the 'triple lock' under which the state pension rises by at least 2.5% each year. Worst of all, she was forced to publicly repudiate major policy commitments only days after making them, following a voter backlash against her social care policies and so called 'dementia tax'. Tory MPs were furious they did not know about these initiatives beforehand, were then forced to defend them on the doorsteps and at local meetings and, finally, obliged to explain her change of mind. The tragic terrorist attack in Manchester distracted public attention away from what would have been more days of humiliation over this U-turn.  

May had been described as the only leader tough enough to take on the EU in Brexit negotiations. Voters had been reassured by 'lady not for turning' and 'difficult woman' mantras. Yet here she was flip-flopping on core manifesto promises and then compounding her embarrassment by denying she had done so. She also refused to debate Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, either one-to-one or along with other party leaders. The mood among commentators and the public 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 side have been troubled by both her judgement and performance, particularly against Jeremy Corbyn, who is widely perceived to be weak, unelectable and unfit for the top job.    

So, what was this election all about?  

Last year May was vehement there was no need for an election prior to its due date in 2020. She publicly ruled a snap poll on seven separate occasions. She appears to have been persuaded to change her mind by advisers and close ministerial colleagues who won her over with private Tory polling that suggested there wouldn't be a better time for a 'compare and contrast' election. May had a massive edge over Corbyn in leadership ratings and these polls also pointed to a triumph over Labour, especially in its traditional regional strongholds that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit in last year's referendum.  

There was another reason for May's backflip. Her predecessor David Cameron had won office for the Tories and later secured re-election. Leaders who battle into government from opposition rather than simply inheriting the Prime Ministership while in government seem almost always to have more legitimacy publicly and more authority in their own parties. The PM was convinced by others she needed a mandate in her own right to give her that clout, particularly internally where she has to deal with the demands of a grumpy 'hard Brexit' right wing who are always rattling cages. Her performance in this campaign will be unlikely to silence them and internal criticism of strategy, tactics and the PM's staff is already bubbling out in the media. There are reports of serious rows between May's inner circle of advisors and senior Ministers, including Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond, whose campaign contribution has been dismal.   

How the Tories improved Corbyn's polling figures

There have also 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 bizarre policy positions over the decades; 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.  

Certainly, Corbyn's positions and friendships over the years are fertile ground for any opponent. His close colleague Dianne Abbott, the shadow Home Secretary, has been widely ridiculed for her campaign gaffes, particularly a colossal funding blunder over hiring more police. However, for many the relentless fury of the anti-Corbyn barrage generated a sense of déjà vu, closely resembling the vicious campaign against moderate Sadiq Khan in last year's election for Mayor of London. Those hysterical headlines didn't match the public's perceptions of Khan, let alone the reality, and the approach backfired. 

Yet a year later the Conservatives launched an almost identical campaign against Jeremy Corbyn. Given the public had long made up their minds that Corbyn wasn't suited to occupy No 10, the way he has been demonised in this campaign has only succeeded in winning him sympathy, giving 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. Realising there was a real danger of 'doing a Sadiq' on Corbyn, the Tories are now back-pedalling, refocusing on Brexit and highlighting polls showing Corbyn might win in order to 'scare the horses' and avoid a protest vote in his favour.

Corbyn won't win yet, ironically, he could have avoided this election altogether. Britain has a relatively new legislative impediment against the calling of early elections. Theresa May was right when she repeatedly said there was no need for an election. Her government was secure. The Parliament, recognising that the people had spoken in the Brexit referendum, had already voted overwhelmingly for Article 50 to be invoked, triggering EU exit negotiations. So this election isn't about securing backing for those talks to start. It is purely about politics, timing and securing a big Tory majority. If the Labour Opposition had refused to vote for the early election, or even abstained from that vote, then there would have been no election on 8 June.  Corbyn could have said: 'You have had the referendum vote, you have our support for article 50 negotiations, so now get on with the job you are supposed to be doing'. Instead Labour succumbed to pressure and voted in Parliament for an early election and an early execution.     

Despite it being a 'leadership election', 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 in most polls, from more than 20% at the start of the campaign to less than 10%, and much closer in some polls in recent days.  

We should always be cautious interpreting UK polls. Voting isn’t compulsory so turnout can be a major, distorting 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.   

Britain's first past the post voting system is another factor to bear in mind. In 2015 this saw minor parties like UKIP and the Greens pile up millions of votes but with negligible reward in terms of seats. 

Pro and anti-EU minor parties were expected to do well in this election but there is no sign of that with both Lib Dems and UKIP floundering. 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 just not been able to connect with voters.  

Commentators also thought this election would be the perfect opportunity for UKIP to step up after its Brexit victory to secure disaffected Labour voters in the north of England and to 'sell' itself as the best means by which 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 leader. UKIP will receive nowhere near the 3.8 million votes obtained at the last election.       

I'm under no doubt that Theresa May will be declared the winner in the small hours of Friday morning. I believe Labour will 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 do well, let alone 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, each time securing more than double the Tories' seat tally.  

Meanwhile Labour moderates are terrified that a better-than-expected result for Corbyn could cement him into the Labour leadership and see a continuation of policies that would guarantee only permanent opposition and political irrelevance.                     

The last few days of this campaign will be fought in the shadow of yet another terrible terrorist attack, this time in London. After Trump and Brexit, predicting elections is becoming an even more precarious task. Theresa May will win and could 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 or more has been squandered. Some will also question their Prime Minister's ability to get the best deal for the UK in Brexit talks that will start within days

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