Sunday

20th Aug 2017

Column / Brexit Briefing

May stumbles her way to the finishing line

  • The prime minister's office, 10 Downing Street - who will be in there after 8 June? (Photo: Number 10)

Conservative candidates are suddenly getting nervous.

An election that, several weeks ago, promised a certain victory by a wide margin is suddenly too close for comfort. And, whisper it, the supreme leader Theresa May, who has made her party’s campaign solely about her leadership skills – with the word "Conservative" conspicuously absent – has been rumbled.

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  • May has refused to debate against Corbyn or the other UK party leaders. (Photo: Reuters)

Truth be told, she’s not that good.

The reputation of the UK polling industry has taken a beating in recent years – mistakenly predicting victories for Labour and the Remain campaign in 2015 and 2016.

So, the latest surveys suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has narrowed the Conservatives’ lead from 20 points to within 5 need to be taken with a large pinch of salt.

A Tory victory on June 8 is still the most likely result.

But it hardly bodes well for the Brexit talks if May struggles to eke out a narrow win against a Labour party with a widely derided leader, for whom the election campaign interrupted a two-year civil war within the party.

If German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Emmanuel Macron, lead EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, et al were nervous at the prospect of facing Margaret Thatcher Mark II, they needn't be. The last month has revealed that May is no Maggie Thatcher.

Refusal to debate

She has refused to debate against Corbyn – a strange decision since Corbyn has little talent for thinking on his feet – or the other UK party leaders.

A frequent critique of May’s campaign is that she has offered little beyond platitudes and clichés, while backtracking on new taxes to fund social care. Her defence of the Conservative’s proposed levy on the estates of elderly care users last weekend was met with derisive laughter by reporters.

May’s response on Thursday (1 June) to tumbling ratings for her party and her personally was to double down on Brexit, telling voters that having “voted to leave the European Union and embrace the world” last year, next Thursday’s poll was the “opportunity to affirm that decision.”

Her other main message now appears to be personal attacks on Corbyn’s competence.

“With the Brexit negotiations due to begin just 11 days after polling day, he is not prepared” and would “find himself alone and naked in the negotiating chamber of the EU,” May said of Corbyn on Wednesday (31 May).

Brexit is the most important issue for the public, but it’s not the only game in town. YouGov’s latest surveys show leaving the EU as the most important issue for voters by a two percent margin, ahead of the National Health Service, followed by immigration and the economy.

The accusation that Labour has no plan to negotiate Brexit is fair. A large chunk of Labour supporters (and MPs) would love to turn back the clock on the June referendum.

Labour's Brexit woes

The party has conceded an end to free movement and ruled out a second referendum only with great reluctance. On Brexit, Labour is out of step with the majority of voters, including a large chunk of its own supporters.

Labour strategists are well aware of this, and are desperately seeking to focus the campaign away from Brexit and back to the state of Britain’s public services, emphasising the future impact of another five years of spending cuts.

Yet, the suggestion that the Conservatives have much of a plan is testing credulity.

For all the criticism that was aimed at former UK prime minister David Cameron’s government for failing to consider the implications of a Brexit vote, similar accusations can be made after reading the party manifestos.

Anand Menon, a professor at King’s College London (KCL) who leads the "Britain in a changing Europe" research project, argues that the next five-year parliament, will see MPs pre-occupied with “the implications of one of the most important and difficult decisions that Britain has ever taken”.

“What a shame that the parties haven’t properly factored it in to their plans,” he adds.

While the Conservatives insist that the two-year window for Article 50 talks is plenty of time to agree the financial terms of the Brexit divorce settlement and a successor trade deal, pundits on both sides of the Channel think this extremely optimistic.

KCL’s latest research estimates the economic impact of a hard Brexit, still the most likely scenario, with the UK resorting to trading on World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, would be "a reduction of the order 3 percent of GDP".

If that prediction is even close to being accurate, May’s re-election on June 8 will be the last word in pyrrhic victories. She and her party will have five years to flounder with their majority.

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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