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Monday 20 January 2020

What a difference a month makes: Britain's unlikely election contest

The Tories' expected landslide now looks like a ­remote possibility after an election ­campaign that saw Conservative leader ­Theresa May fail to convince in her promise to stay 'strong and stable'

No show: Protesters watch the arrival of the politicians who took part in the BBC Election Debate on Wednesday, in which the prime minister Theresa May declined to take part. Photo: Gareth Fuller
No show: Protesters watch the arrival of the politicians who took part in the BBC Election Debate on Wednesday, in which the prime minister Theresa May declined to take part. Photo: Gareth Fuller
Theresa May appears on a joint Channel 4 and Sky News general election programme on Monday.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waves to supporters after taking part in the BBC Election Debate on Wednesday. Photo: Stefan Rousseau

Peter Geoghegan

Theresa May makes much of the fact that she is the daughter of a vicar. In Britain, particularly the stolid Tory English shires, that lineage is code for a number of character traits: solid, dependable, not given to rushes of blood. So when the prime minister announced in April that she was calling a snap general election, it was hardly seen as risk at all. Conservatives enjoyed huge poll leads. One analysis suggested May could win 172-seat landslide.

Most British political journalists expected a quiet campaign. May, faced with a seemingly unelectable left-wing Labour leader, would stroll to victory. A few weeks after the general election announcement, the Spectator, a popular centre-right political magazine, ventured that "election campaigns don't matter". The question was not whether the Conservatives would win, but by how much.

What a difference a month makes. A poll this week suggests the UK could be on course for a hung parliament, with the Conservatives returning as the biggest party but shy of the overall majority May went into the campaign with. That poll could well be an outlier - the Tories have been ahead in all others - but this general election campaign has undermined the prime minister's most valuable political asset: her public perception as a safe pair of hands to tackle the upcoming Brexit negotiations.

It was not supposed to be like this. May entered the campaign - her first as Tory leader - as her party's most popular selling point. Indeed, the prime minister's tight inner circle took the unprecedented step of running a presidential-style campaign. The Conservatives became Theresa May's "team" on the sides of battle buses and in election leaflets.

Theresa May appears on a joint Channel 4 and Sky News general election programme on Monday.
Theresa May appears on a joint Channel 4 and Sky News general election programme on Monday.

A strong start for May

The Tory leader depicted herself as above the cut and thrust of party politics. Where Labour's Jeremy Corbyn and the Liberal Democrats' increasingly innocuous leader Tim Farron were out for narrow political advantage, she alone wanted to unite the country behind her Brexit vision. Britain's right-wing press was ecstatic. "Crush the saboteurs", declared the Daily Mail.

And that pitch worked, at least in the early weeks. At the start of May, the Tories made sweeping gains in local elections across England and, even more surprisingly, in Scotland. In the most dramatic sign of the Conservative advance, Andy Street, former managing director of John Lewis, narrowly won the mayoralty of the West Midlands, beating Labour in one of its biggest strongholds. Commentators said May was better placed than Margaret Thatcher was before her landslide victories of 1983 and 1987.

Now, the prime minister goes into Thursday's election with a noticeable air of trepidation that transcends the horrific events in Manchester on May 22. The Tory leader's wariness was in evidence in a recent live TV discussion - May refused to debate head-to-head with any party leaders - when the prime minister appeared testy and uncomfortable. Where just weeks earlier her 'strong and stable' campaign slogan was endorsed by most of the British media, now the studio audience openly laughed at times. "Weak and wobbly", quipped venerable Channel 4 hack Michael Crick.

The immediate cause of May's difficulties was a remarkably poorly conceived, uncosted election manifesto. Among the pledges was a flagship social care policy that would see elderly people pay for care in their own home if they have total assets of £100,000 (€115,000) or more. Initially, Tories refused to commit to any cap on the cost of this before subsequently backing down. Professor David Butler, an eminent psephologist who has covered every British general election since World War II, said he couldn't "remember a U-turn on this scale - or much that could be called a U-turn at all" in any election manifesto.

The 'dementia tax' chaos

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waves to supporters after taking part in the BBC Election Debate on Wednesday. Photo: Stefan Rousseau
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waves to supporters after taking part in the BBC Election Debate on Wednesday. Photo: Stefan Rousseau

The chaos over the so-called 'dementia tax' has been symptomatic of a broader carelessness amongst the Conservatives' upper echelons. May is not a collegiate politician. She prefers to present her cabinet with a fait accompli, as she did with the general election announcement and the party's manifesto.

The prime minister's preference for stage-managed public events with almost no unscripted public involvement looks presidential when you are 20 points ahead in the polls. When that gap narrows to five it appears as if the leader is avoiding the people.

These travails do not mean the Conservatives are headed for defeat. Labour is enjoying a bounce in the opinion polls but nothing like the kind of support it would need to win an outright majority. The best Corbyn can hope for is to hold the 256 seats won in 2015 - at the time, widely seen as a nadir for Labour.

Nevertheless, Corbyn looks set to emerge from Thursday in a stronger position. After two years of internal dissension - including a leadership contest last summer - a general election was supposed to be the moment when the British public took a long hard look at 'Jezza' - and soundly rejected what they saw. Instead, Corbyn has seen his approval ratings steadily rise, albeit from a basement low, and has generally confounded expectations.

Unlike May, Corbyn is happiest on the campaign trail, and seems to have attracted wavering Labour voters back into the fold. Commitments to nationalise rail and water services and to increase the minimum wage were roundly criticised in the press but are popular in a country where trains are costly and poor quality and almost a decade of austerity has taken its toll.

Getting back to Brexit

In recent days, May has attempted to reboot the Conservative campaign by focusing on the issue that the election was supposed to be about: Brexit. Back in April, the prime minister said she was calling the election not for party political reasons - heaven forbid - but to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations. This week, May said the UK's departure from the European Union was "the one, fundamental, defining issue" facing voters. But, in truth, this has not been the Brexit election. For one thing, nobody actually knows what Brexit will entail, which is part of the reason the prime minister called the vote in the first place. The next general election - due in 2020 - could easily have become a referendum on whatever deal May manages to achieve. By going to the polls early, she has possibly bought herself more time.

May has refused to be drawn on what her vision of the UK outside Europe would be beyond bromides about forging "a new deep and special partnership with the European Union that returns control to Britain". The Tory manifesto pledge that "no deal is better than a bad deal" - which would be a disaster at the Irish border - is a worrying sign that UK government thinking has not progressed much since last June's referendum.

Where Brexit has had an impact in the UK election is in neutralising the most passionate players on both sides of the argument. The Tories' "Brexit means Brexit" mantra has allowed the party to cannibalise much of the United Kingdom Independence Party's support.

In 2015, Ukip won four million votes (which yielded just a single seat under the UK's first-past-the post system). Without their controversial figurehead Nigel Farage, and with Britain on the verge of leaving the European Union, Ukip is rudderless, left having to push even further to the right on social issues. Among its campaign promises are a "one in, one out" immigration policy and compulsory checks on Muslim girls "at risk" of female genital mutilation.

A Lib Dem challenge

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Liberal Democrats came into this election with high hopes. As the only major UK party firmly opposed to Brexit, leader Tim Farron would have expected to rebuild after the disastrous showing in 2015 when the party was punished for its time in coalition, losing more than 80pc of its seats.

But polls suggest the Liberal Democrats could struggle to even keep the eight seats currently held. In south-east England, where the Tories wiped the Lib Dems off the electoral map in 2015, support for Brexit is strong. The remain vote last June was strongest in metropolitan areas, London, Manchester and Liverpool, where Labour's vote seems to be holding up well.

The Scottish National Party is certain to return as the dominant political force north of the border. But, for the first time in a decade, the SNP goes into an election on the back foot, following disappointing council election results last month.

Here, too, Brexit has had surprising effects. Scotland voted strongly to remain in the European Union. In March, the SNP-controlled Scottish government in Edinburgh won a vote demanding the right to hold a second independence referendum, after the Brexit deal has been confirmed. But polls suggest there still isn't majority support for leaving the UK. And Brexit will throw up even more thorny questions - about currency and borders - than the nationalists faced in 2014.

Little attention has been paid in Britain to Northern Ireland during the election campaign, save the extent of Jeremy Corbyn's links to Sinn Féin. Since becoming prime minister last summer, May has been close to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a relationship that will likely continue, particularly if the Tories need unionist votes in the House of Commons. Nationalists are hopeful of repeating strong performances in March's devolved elections, with Sinn Féin hopeful of taking Fermanagh/South Tyrone and even North Belfast. The battle between the DUP and Alliance leader Naomi Long in the east of the city could be the most interesting of the night.

A red or blue outcome

It is too early to tell whether the Manchester bombing - which led to a three-day suspension of campaigning - has had a significant bearing on this election. What is it clear, however, is that this election marks a return to two-party politics, at least in England and Wales.

In 1951, 97pc of the UK electorate voted Labour or Conservative. In 2010, that figure was just two in three. This time around, however, polls suggest over 80pc of British voters will choose between the red of Labour or blue of the Tories. But beneath the headline figures there are already signs of shifting allegiances, with the Tory message making inroads with working-class Brexit voters that were once solid Labour and middle-class liberals switching to Jeremy Corbyn. If that process continues, British politics might finally shift away from the ossified Tory south/Labour north divide that sees general elections settled in a handful of marginal seats.

But, more broadly, this general election suggests that there is little possibility of - or appetite for - change in Britain, and its politics. The overarching campaign mood has been one of nostalgia. Theresa May consciously harks back to a One Nation Conservatism not seen since the early 1970s. Britain will regain "its place in the world". There will be market intervention and a cap on the number of foreigners coming into the country, regardless of the economic impact. (A number of leading economists have warned that the Tory manifesto will hamper growth in the coming years.) Meanwhile, Labour's main pitch is an unwinding of the post-1970s nationalisations.

Striking by its absence is any real sense of an agenda for the challenges of the 21st century - and for Brexit. Almost a year on from the referendum, the tenor of what Britain should look like outside the EU is no clearer. Instead there have been platitudes aplenty, promises to "make Brexit a success", and an inchoate hope that this general election will somehow ease the Brexit process. That thinking seems wishful. While the rest of the EU has been working out a common negotiating position, the UK has been talking to itself.

There is a mood of rising nationalism in Britain, most notably in England. This seems more likely to intensify than subside as the UK leaves the EU, especially if the 'deal' is, as expected, not the sovereign-filled bounty the British public were promised.

There is little sign in Europe that the UK election result will greatly affect the EU27's negotiating position. But the campaign has painfully exposed the limits of the current British prime minister and her presidential ambitions. This week, the Spectator returned to the general election. Its front page features Theresa May wobbling as her suit of armour falls to pieces. The heading: 'General shambles'.


What the ­leaders said

“I called an election on this whole issue of trust, because the question that people face is, who do they trust to take this country though the Brexit negotiations?”

— Confident Theresa May after publishing her party’s manifesto.

 “This isn’t strong and stable, this is chaos.”

— Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn after May reverses course on the ­“dementia tax” element of her manifesto.

“This attack stands out for its appalling, sickening cowardice. Deliberately targeting innocent, defenceless children and young people who should have been enjoying one of the most memorable nights of their lives.”

— Theresa May delivers a powerful reaction to the Manchester bomb.

“We must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working. We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from ­countries that nurture terrorists and ­generate terrorism.

— Jeremy Corbyn strikes a different note after the Manchester attack

“I think that the choice that people face at the general election has just become starker. It is a choice between me, working constantly to protect the national interest and protect our security; and Jeremy ­Corbyn, who frankly isn’t up to the job.”

— Theresa May reacts as her lead over Labour narrows

“As prime minister, I would do all I can to bring about a nuclear-free world. I am ­horrified at the very idea of a nuclear attack.”

— Jeremy Corbyn is grilled by Jeremy Paxman on TV

“I’m not prepared to sign up for a bad deal.”

— Theresa May talks Brexit negotiations to Jeremy Paxman

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