How Mrs May overplayed her hand

How Mrs May overplayed her hand
epa05913389 British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a statement outside 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, 18 April 2017. British Prime Minister Theresa May has announced that she will call for a snap general election for 08 June. EPA/ANDY RAIN

No prime minister has ever thrown away a winning hand as Theresa May has done.

She announced the election when she was thought to be twenty percentage points clear of Jeremy Corbyn in the polls. In early campaigning even Labour candidates with huge majorities feared defeat, assuming that the UKIP vote would go to their Tory opponent. They campaigned openly telling voters that it was safe to vote Labour because Corbyn could not win. 

Mrs May chose to run a campaign that was based entirely on her personality, scarcely using the name of the Conservative Party. She opted to avoid “real” voters, crowds and television debates, and to give utterly vacuous interviews. The exasperation of the media quickly infected the electorate too, and during the long weeks since the poll was called, she leaked authority and credibility.

The campaign was a calamity. She failed in her aim to keep the election focused on Brexit, but her performance reduced confidence that she had the imagination or leadership skills to pull off a timely and acceptable deal with our EU partners. The opportunity to inject more vision or optimism about our nation’s role outside the union was largely lost.

The manifesto was alarmingly socialist, yet by stark contrast the social care proposals implied an enormous shift away from state provision to personal responsibility. Whatever the intrinsic merits of each of her policies, the ideological confusion was glaring. Amongst the older voters who were set to vote Conservative by a great majority, she sewed bewilderment and anxiety.

With policies to interfere with energy prices, any clarion call for free markets and wealth creation would have sounded false. So no such case was mounted. Labour and all the other leftist parties were given free rein to promise taxpayer money to every interest group, untroubled by any sustained Tory argument that wealth must be created before it is spent. The Conservatives have in any case dropped George Osborne’s plan to make the country live within its means, so all the parties campaigned in “never never” land.

Incredibly, the Conservative campaign enabled Jeremy Corbyn to shine. He was not vacuous. Although shouted down for doing so, he made interesting arguments. Of course it’s debatable whether Britain needs to maintain its own nuclear deterrent. Also, it is obvious that government must consider how its foreign policy adventures increase the opportunities for fanatics to recruit new British terrorists.

I suspect that Corbyn enjoyed a surge of support amongst younger voters. It seems to me nonsense that they feel “cheated” by the referendum result (since it was democratic) but many apparently do. The Brexit-supporting Tories are the new establishment and voting for Corbyn was the anti-establishment vote for the young; just as voting against the EU was last year’s protest vote, by mainly older voters.

At the time of writing there is no saying whether Corbyn or May will emerge as PM. But Brexit as we expected it is dead. Mrs May campaigned for hard Brexit and has failed to win. Jeremy Corbyn’s idea of Brexit involves remaining in the single market and not restricting immigration.

If Mrs May could not make the country believe that she was strong and stable, she was probably nonetheless right to describe the alternative to her as a coalition of chaos.

A Corbyn led coalition would be the first really socialist government that the country has had. My sense of doom will be shared by the vast majority of Labour MPs who have no confidence in their leader. The catastrophe of the Labour Party may now become tragedy for the country.

As for the Tories, the result reopens their existential question. If they cannot trounce Corbyn, what hope is there for them? 2015 is the only election to produce a majority for them since 1992. They have failed to win young people or ethnic minorities to their cause. It seems that if you offend the pensioners, you throw away your majority. Mrs May’s attempt to win the middle ground with left wing policies merely served to validate her opponents.

During the campaign a Conservative Party “strong and stable” van fell on its side on one of its journeys. What a metaphor.

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