22nd Mar 2018

Column / Brexit Briefing

The coronation that nearly lost the crown

  • The way Theresa May's campaign is staggering to the finish line suggests that her honeymoon is over. (Photo: Number 10/Flickr)

Six weeks ago, the odds for the 8 June snap elections were stacked in Theresa May’s favour.

Backed by a poll lead of over 20 points, Conservative pundits expected a landslide win.

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The main purpose of calling the snap election three years early was to give May a stonking majority that would provide her with a mandate to negotiate the terms of Britain leaving the EU – killing off the prospect of a second referendum on the exit terms.

As a bonus, the vote would flatten her opponents in the Labour party, Scottish nationalists, and on her own back-benches in the process. Labour officials, privately, feared that their party could fall below 150 seats – a loss of over 80.

May’s pitch last month was to present her Conservatives as the real party of working people by promoting a Red Tory message, including capping energy bills and protecting workers from “unscrupulous bosses”.

Her target voters were the Leave majority in Wales and northern England: disaffected Labour supporters.

The Conservatives launched their manifesto in Halifax, a town in Yorkshire (northern England), where the Labour MP is defending a small majority. The message was clear that there were few areas where May did not think she could win.

Yet, the expected coronation has turned into a bitter fight.

Few would deny that May has had a poor campaign. And her mistakes have been self-inflicted.

'Week and wobbly'

Unlike Cameron (who had other faults), May struggles to think on her feet.

Her campaign has been painfully stage managed, dominated by speeches to handpicked audiences.

The questions of journalists and voters have been answered with clichés and platitudes about "strong and stable" leadership. The refusal to debate with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is not a strong one-on-one performer, was a strange mistake.

As the confidence gradually evaporated – “Let’s make June the end of May!” is the chant that has greeted the prime minister at some of her campaign stops – May has gone back to basics.

The prime minister who supported the Remain campaign last June, has pulled out the patriot cards, talking of Brexit as a “turning point” in Britain’s history that would see the country “set free from the shackles” of Brussels.

There is still little detail on what her vision of Brexit actually is. Voters are essentially being asked to sign another blank cheque.

Yet despite morphing from "strong and stable" to "weak and wobbly" (according to the Guardian) in the space of a month, the odds are still in May’s favour for Thursday.

She retains a lead on issues such as security and the handling of both the economy and Brexit. May is still has a comfortable lead over Corbyn when it comes to who would make the best prime minister.

As the week of the vote started, not a single opinion poll has Labour ahead – the closest had Jeremy Corbyn’s party within one point, but the average puts the Conservatives on 44 percent to Labour’s 37 percent. Repeated on Thursday, that would give May roughly 350 seats out of 650, about 20 gains on the performance of Cameron in 2015, and a majority of about 50 seats.

Terror attacks' impact

A hung parliament or a narrow Labour win will need younger voters to come out in large numbers, more than had voted in last June’s referendum.

Under 30s have been most enthused by Jeremy Corbyn, particularly by his party’s pledges to scrap university tuition fees and increase taxes on high earners. They are also the demographic least likely to vote.

But it is now too close for comfort. A Conservative win by fewer than five points puts us in hung parliament territory, with the Scottish National party, who are intent on holding a second referendum on independence because of Brexit, potentially holding the balance of power. Defeat for May would make her the shortest-serving prime minister for 90 years.

The campaign has been overshadowed by terrorist attacks in Manchester and London.

May delivered an uncompromising “enough is enough” speech on Sunday, the morning after the attacks in London that left seven people dead. But the frenzy of the final days of a general election campaign are surely among the worst times to re-write national security policy.

Either way, recent history suggests that terror attacks rarely affect election results. Almost all voters have already made up their minds.

It is highly unlikely, but far from impossible, that May will lose on Thursday. But the way her campaign is staggering to the finish line suggests that May’s honeymoon is over. Britons have not been impressed.

The planned coronation has ended with her coming perilously close to losing the crown.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.

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