Theresa May’s Self-Inflicted Election
The vote that was supposed to strengthen the British prime minister’s hand ahead of Brexit negotiations is now poised to leave her wounded and vulnerable.
At best, the British snap election was always going to be a pointless exercise. Now it’s looking more likely to wind up as an unnecessary act of self-inflicted humiliation.
When Theresa May stepped out of Downing Street in mid-April and announced that she would hold a surprise general election, this was not the way she thought it would go. At the time, polls showed a healthy Tory lead, with most commentators expecting the Conservatives to secure an astronomical majority of something like 150 seats. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was seen as weak, uncharismatic, and politically deranged. (He had proposed, for instance, that Britain spend billions to update its nuclear submarines — but that it should remove the nukes.) Even worse, he was viewed as hopelessly inept at the cut-and-thrust of politics. His own members of Parliament said they got “more and more depressed” every time he stood up. The prime minister, on the other hand, had never been more popular and was viewed as ruthless, canny, and above all competent. May saw weakness and made her move. And why not? It seemed like a sure thing.
It hasn’t quite worked out the way she expected. A catastrophic series of unforced errors on the part of the prime minister has raised the prospect that May could, absurdly, end up in exactly the same position she started in when she called the vote — or possibly lose her majority altogether. The campaign has almost taken on the air of a Shakespearean tragedy. The election that was supposed to allow May to cast herself as Britain’s determined and resolute leader has seen her rebranded as cowardly and inept. In the words of former Labour advisor Tom Baldwin: “The prime minister is disintegrating in front of the public.”
Two things got us here. First, May failed to make the campaign about the country’s pending exit from the European Union, despite proclaiming this the Brexit election. Second, she has conducted herself with a staggering degree of incompetence, which has not contrasted well with her repeated declaration that she is the “strong and stable” candidate.
May wanted to make this the Brexit election, because she thought that if voters asked themselves who they would rather see in the negotiating room — her or Corbyn — she would come out on top. This might be true, but it turns out that it is hard to keep voters focused on an issue when you are unwilling to provide any details about it.
The effect of Brexit on the British economy is impossible to overstate. It risks the return of a hard border in Ireland, billions of lost revenue from trade with Europe, countrywide regulatory chaos, travel obstacles, and countless other issues, including aircraft flight paths and animal rights. It is arguably the biggest policy decision taken by a British government in the postwar era. May still refuses to discuss any of it, instead relying on her absurdist mantra that “Brexit means Brexit” and she intends “to make a success of it.” Brexit secretary David Davis recently reduced critics to laughter when he insisted the government had “over 100 pages of detail” about the process — barely even a prologue. He admits to having done no studies on the consequences of falling out of the European Union without a deal, even though that is the default outcome of the coming negotiations.
May has asked voters to trust her judgment on Brexit issues without being prepared to divulge any details. Her election strategy has resembled a religious demand more than an intellectual proposition. Nearly a year on, Brexit remains an absence wrapped in a mystery.
This tactic has made it easier to avoid the difficult questions around Brexit and how, exactly, to make a success of it — but it appears to have had one major pitfall. May couldn’t hold the national conversation down on the topic of exiting the European Union because she refused to talk about it — and attention duly wandered onto domestic issues, where detail is available. And this is where things started to fall apart.
The release of a party manifesto in British politics is a crucial moment in the election cycle. They can break political parties, as they did Labour in 1983, when Michael Foot’s effort — which called for mass nationalization of industries, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and high taxes on the rich — was branded “the longest suicide note in history.” Or they can frame the debate around the election and put rocket-boosters on a campaign. The release of the Tory manifesto this year was a disaster. It included a proposal for a new social care policy designed to put help for the elderly on a more sustainable level. People requiring care at the end of their life would pay for it with their assets after their death, up to their last $129,000. The irony is that this policy is not altogether unreasonable — it taxed those who could afford to pay to help share the burden of an elderly population. But it was translated, in tabloid-speak, as a “dementia tax” — a state effort to stop you from passing your home on to your children if you were unlucky enough to get a debilitating and drawn-out illness. It was of particular concern to the over 65s, who happen to be the group that most reliably votes Tory.
The reaction was instant and entirely predictable. The press hated it. Tory voters hated it. Tory MPs hated it. What was most telling, however, was how surprised May seemed to be about all this hate. Even the most cursory stress-testing of the policy would have established that this response was likely. But one thing we’ve learned about May since she’s become leader is that she has an obsession with control. She purged the old guard of the party, who had worked under David Cameron and former Chancellor George Osborne. She brought her cabinet to heel. Those members like Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who may have once shown flickers of independence, have long since submitted. By most accounts, the only people making decisions in Britain these days are May and two of her closest advisors. The result was this manifesto, the product of a team deciding on policies with too little scrutiny, tucked away and insulated from criticism.
Within days there was a U-turn, with the promise of a cap on the amount that would be paid. It was an extraordinary climb-down — possibly the first time a party had reversed a policy before it had been put to voters in an election. Even the U-turn itself was handled badly. May took to the stage at a ferocious news conference and insisted repeatedly that “nothing has changed,” which was plainly nonsense and caused journalists to hound her for days. A quick reversal can limit the damage of a bad policy. But the manner in which May executed it only served to stretch out the humiliation.
The moment seemed to break May’s confidence. She’s never been the most reliable of public speakers; she has the twitching facial expressions of a shy person forced to attend a party. That alone is hardly a crime, but if you run for government on the slogan “strong and stable” you really do need to be able to look it. Instead, May developed a nervous tic where she would laugh maniacally at critical questions from journalists and then instantly start grimacing. It looked terrible.
The polls started shifting. Her Everest-like lead was chipped away to almost nothing in some surveys. The volatility in the polls is at least partly to do with changes in methodology following the failures to predict the 2015 election result, or Brexit. But clearly there’s something going on beyond that. People are reappraising their vote — and the party leaders.
Corbyn suddenly seems to have the wind in his sails. A prime-time interview with seasoned journalist Jeremy Paxman saw the Labour leader appear relaxed, human, and witty. It stood in stark difference to the increasingly robotic and unlikable prime minister. (One local journalist from the Plymouth Herald was so infuriated by the experience of questioning May that he blogged about it. “Before 8:30 a.m. today, I had never interviewed a prime minister,” he wrote. “Heading back to the office to transcribe my encounter with Theresa May I couldn’t be certain that had changed.”)
Then, at the end of May, Corbyn made the surprise announcement that he’d be attending a TV debate of opposition leaders and dared May to come along too. She refused, accusing him of wanting to go on television rather than talk to voters — a rather absurd claim given that she was delivering the accusation on television. Instead, Rudd, the home secretary, was sent to face the other leaders despite being in mourning for her father, who had passed away days earlier. May’s seeming refusal to face scrutiny at the end of a bad few weeks helped seal the impression that she wasn’t half as good as she’d been made out to be by a supportive press. The party leaders who did attend the TV debate piled on the absent prime minister. “The first rule of leadership is to show up,” Green Party leader Caroline Lucas said. “Make yourself a brew,” Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron told viewers, using a British colloquial term for tea. “You are not worth Theresa May’s time. Don’t give her yours.” The following day, even the Sun, an indefatigably loyal right-wing tabloid, started to question the prime minister’s judgment. “The time has come for Theresa May to spell out why her optimistic vision for Britain is worth voting for,” it demanded.
Despite all this, the smart money is still on a Tory victory. A recent YouGov forecast of a hung Parliament sent shudders through the Conservative Party, but many commentators have questioned its methodology. May’s campaign can also be expected to gather itself for a final week of disciplined messaging. The expectation is that she’ll still win and secure an enlarged majority — although nowhere near as large as was expected.
And yet victory alone is not enough. When she triggered Article 50 in March, May set the clock ticking; Britain now has two years to secure a deal that allows it to exit the European Union without catastrophe. Negotiations are supposed to begin in earnest just 11 days after the June 8 vote. May has used up two crucial months of preparation time with this election.
Countless hours have been spent by MPs pacing their constituencies and journalists going up and down the country covering interminable campaign events. The civil service has been effectively switched off for the duration of the campaign — a process known as purdah. This time was urgently needed to hire and prepare trade experts and negotiators for the work ahead. Britain needs to be coordinating simultaneous talks in Brussels and the World Trade Organization, where it must establish an independent presence outside the EU umbrella. It needs to set up staff and legally rubber-stamp countless domestic regulators to take on tasks previously handled by Europe. It is as enormous a task as any British government has undertaken in generations. The two years provided by the Article 50 process are nowhere near enough. May has now wasted two months of it on a cynical, self-serving exercise that has blown up in her face. Worse, the British public, after all this, still has no idea how she plans to pursue the most important issue facing the country.
If current polls are anything to go by, she will win the election, but do so with possibly as few seats as she had going into it. That would leave her mortally wounded, not just in the eyes of many in her party and outside it. She will have been humiliated on the national stage. The prime minister who modeled herself after the Iron Lady will instead look ineffective and foolhardy. Or, as Channel 4 News reporter Michael Crick put it to her during a particularly bruising news conference recently, she will no longer be considered “strong and stable,” but “weak and wobbly.”
And personal embarrassment aside, this will have direct consequences for the Brexit negotiations. May could reasonably be seen as damaged goods, who cannot necessarily get agreements she makes in Brussels past Parliament. And her choice of language during the campaign, including one hopelessly misjudged speech in which she claimed European leaders were trying to subvert the British election, has helped to poison opinion against her on the continent.
It is still possible that May performs better than downcast expectations. The polls are confused, the public mood is volatile, and Corbyn remains a shambolic public presence. She is likely to be returned with an increased majority. But even then, something fundamental will have changed as a result of the election she called. May’s indomitable image has been tarnished. Her adversaries, at home and abroad, have smelled blood. They’re unlikely to forget the scent.
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