Six weeks is all it took. For months May seemed to walk on water, making the political arguments for calling an election overwhelming. But now it is clear that this election campaign marks the beginning of the end for Theresa May’s premiership. Talk of a majority of 200, which equates to 425 seats, means that the real result will seem like a disappointment. Moreover, this dire campaign has shattered the illusion that May is, in her own words, “strong and stable”. With comparisons to Gordon Brown beginning to go mainstream, the Conservative leader is a much weakened figure.
The Conservative campaign has made justifiable decisions, but executed them poorly. They sought to make this a Brexit election, but failed to focus on this topic. Tory high command have sought to shield the prime minister from scrutiny, but done so in such a brazen way as to make her seem out of touch. Furthermore, they have sought to avoid the extravagant promises of the 2015 manifesto by giving no vision or retail offer whatsoever. The result of this has been to hand momentum to Labour and weaken the prime minister’s previously extensive authority.
Brexit is of critical importance for this country, but is not the most important issue for its citizens. I was struck over the Easter break how little focus even Brexiteers gave it. One response was just to say “I’m sick of hearing about it, I just want it done”.
I think this also explains why the Lib Dems have failed to ignite their campaign. The public accept the result, many are even thrilled about it; but they don’t dwell on it. It is an abstract idea in the background, rather than the most pressing issue facing them. The public’s attention is only really drawn to Brexit when there is a belief it is under threat. Theresa May’s personal rating reflected a belief she could be trusted to sort it all out. This election, therefore, was never going to be a Brexit election unless it was perceived to be at threat. The speech announcing the election, and the (misjudged) speech attacking Brussels a few days later were an attempt to build a threat. But it was never believable. Article 50 had been triggered, but before negotiations had started there was little in the way of a ‘threat’.
Lack of vision
As a result, domestic issues reigned supreme. Here, May’s lack of domestic agenda became a serious deficiency. We are told Nick Timothy is the father of ‘Erdington conservatism’, an intellectual descendant of Joseph Chamberlain’s liberal unionism. If we are generous and accept this is an intellectually robust idea, then we are still left with the criticism that it has not been clearly spelt out to us during this campaign.
Tacking a vaguely-defined ‘energy cap’ on to the economic policies of the Cameron years does not constitute a shift in direction. Although supposed to signal a leftward turn, a gift to ‘hardworking families’, it has simply come across as a gimmick. May has not spent time telling us what she sees as the failure of the market system we have now, and how she intends to fix it. She appears to have acknowledged the anger that led to the referendum result, but believes this is enough. We all acknowledge the status quo is no longer viable, but it is incumbent upon her to put before us her way forward. The manifesto was, as a result, a wasted opportunity. Corbyn, whose manifesto was unrealistic but at least spoke to that anger, was able to capitalise on this failure.
Speaking to someone on the doorstep, there is a belief emerging that she’s a “typical Tory” who wants to “privatise everything”. The public are filling in the blanks left by the complete vacuum of anything other than platitudes from Central Office, and it is not helping the May brand.
It is hard to argue with the idea that Theresa May has done anything other than avoid scrutiny. She has called the most presidential election in modern history, and then blatantly avoided any attempts to be held to account. Apart from the One Show that is. The lack of subtlety has been astounding. No prime minister with such a lead would wish to be too open out of fear of destroying their lead. But most would do it with a bit more grace. Cameron at least invented vaguely credible reasons to avoid debates. Furthermore, he participated in the seven-way debate to blunt the argument about ducking the one-on-one debate with Miliband. May simply announced she would not do them without any real reason given, leaving the public to work out she is just ‘frit’.
She had astonishing leadership ratings, and yet refused to leave the safety of rooms of Conservative activists. This has cut through, and is even worse than a mediocre performance on a debate most would not even watch.
Theresa May will be re-elected. The Labour poll surge reflects a realignment on the left and a dubiously high engagement by the young, more than a haemorrhaging of the Conservative share. However, that in itself is reflective of the historic opportunity missed by this campaign. The start of this campaign saw the Conservatives 10 points ahead in Wales, it ends with them slipping back behind Labour. When we consider that Labour has won every election in Wales since 1918, this becomes emblematic of this campaign.
The Conservative party is a remarkably brutal party, removing leaders when they show themselves to be past their point of usefulness. She still has enough support to be our Brexit negotiator, but after that she will be gone. Her failure to spell out her vision, in part ensures she will not have her opportunity to deliver it. June truly shall be the end of May.