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What could go wrong for Theresa May in UK polls

LiveMint logoLiveMint 06-06-2017 Salil Tripathi

When the British Prime Minister Theresa May called for snap parliamentary elections in April, the ruling Conservatives were leading the opposition Labour Party by nearly 20 points. In late March, May had invoked Article 50 to initiate the proceedings to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union. She wanted to capitalize on three trends: Labour was in disarray; the UK Independence Party, which gained prominence during the referendum to leave the EU in 2016 had an existential crisis, given that the UK was now leaving the EU; and support for the Liberal Democrats, the only national party speaking unequivocally to remain in the EU, was waning, even though nearly half the country had voted to remain in the referendum.

Labour was not likely to do well in Scotland either. Once a Labour citadel, it is now firmly under the control of the Scottish National Party. And while the SNP was expected to lose support due to anti-incumbency mood, the beneficiary was not going to be Labour, but a revived Conservative Party, led by the charismatic Ruth Davidson.

What compounded Labour’s crisis, May’s strategists reckoned, was the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral performance across the country. The ruling party typically loses local elections, and the principal opposition is the main beneficiary, but across the country, the haemorrhaging of voters leaving Labour for other parties — UKIP in the north and Conservatives in the south, seemed to be continuing. Never popular within his parliamentary party, Corbyn was not able to reach out to a wider constituency.

While party membership rose from 201,293 members at the time of the 2015 elections to 554,000 in July last year, with much of the surge comprising left-leaning younger voters who were inspired by Corbyn and voted for him overwhelmingly to retain party leadership, the prevailing wisdom was that Corbyn was only preaching to the converted. Some of his front-bench members didn’t seem serious about wanting to govern, espousing ideals and confusing those for practical policy, or fighting the battles of the late 1970s which the left had lost comprehensively, such as the demand to renationalize coal and steel.

What could go wrong?

Everything, it seems.

May relied on those factors and called for elections this Thursday. Her calculation was based on what she perceived as others’ weaknesses, and confusing those with her strengths. “Strong and stable,” became her campaign slogan. But the seven-week campaign has shown her to be personally weak, not strong: she has avoided debating face-to-face with her rivals, sending her ministers instead. And wavering, and not stable, since she has flip-flopped on several major policy announcements. (She wanted the UK to remain in the EU and is now leading the charge to leave the EU; she forced her chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond to make a humiliating retreat from provisions on national insurance deductions; and she herself backtracked from a policy on elderly care).

Two days before the polls, the Conservative lead has narrowed — with one poll (Survation) suggesting the lead is only one point, well within margin of error. Other polls show a wider margin, but even then, with the exception of one poll (ComRes) which shows Tories ahead by 12 points, most polls suggest a close call. The implications of such a close call are clear: either a hung parliament or a victory by a narrow margin. Worse, May’s personal approval ratings have plunged whereas Corbyn’s figures have risen.

British electoral system is based on the principle of first-past-the-post, which can exaggerate parliamentary majorities even when the margin dividing parties may be small. ‘Shy Tories’ (people who vote Conservative but are unwilling to say so publicly) have, in the past, given unexpected victory margins to the Conservatives, and that may well happen. Besides, it is impossible to predict how the voters will view the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London. Many view Corbyn as ‘soft’ on terrorism, but three attacks in two months have severely dented May’s own credibility as a tough leader — she was the home secretary for six years.

The series of terrorist attacks — in front of the Parliament on 22 March, at the Manchester Arena on 22 May, and at the Borough Market in London on 3 June — has shown weaknesses which lead up to May, the home secretary from 2010 till her selection as Prime Minister in July 2016. Instead of investing more resources in detective and investigative work, she wants more powers for mass surveillance with fewer safeguards such as judicial authorization. Meanwhile, her rallies have been poorly-attended, and she has faced sullen voters. Poll leads have continued to narrow.

As politicians are fond of saying, the only poll that matters is the one on the election day. But assuming the polls are fairly accurate, and the result is a hung parliament — i.e., no party getting a majority — or the Tories scrape through with a small majority, then May’s gamble will have failed spectacularly. In either scenario, she will have to resign, making way for a new prime minister certainly by the time the party meets in Manchester this year for its autumn conference in early October.

If that happens, the main rationale for calling these elections — giving the government a strong mandate for Brexit negotiations — will be weakened significantly. A weak mandate will strengthen the hands of the Eurocrats as well as European politicians who seem to be in no mood to offer the UK any special concessions as it prepares to leave the EU. The divorce with the EU will be messy — and that would considerably strengthen Nicola Sturgeon’s plans to seek independence for Scotland through a fresh referendum in 2019. Granted, May rejected Sturgeon’s demand for a Scottish referendum in March.

But that was then. Two-time British Prime Minister Harold Wilson had once said that a week is a long time in politics. Two years are an eternity.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Comments are welcome at Read Salil Tripathi’s previous Mint columns here.

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