Theresa May’s snap election is starting to look like a disaster
Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election vote, once seen as a shrewd move to consolidate her power and steady the country a year after Brexit, has backfired. In the wake of terror attacks in London and Manchester in the past weeks, the British prime minister is now having to explain her massive cuts to police forces when she was U.K. home secretary from 2010-2016. And rather than cement her dominance over Parliament and give the country a clear path forward, the vote, set for Thursday, has revived a beleaguered Labour Party and left May more vulnerable than ever.
On top of that, a combination of mudslinging candidates and muddled manifesto pledges has meant a notable lack of enthusiasm for any of the main party leaders. This perhaps explains why all three have approached the task of winning over voters with a palpable reluctance.
May is perhaps the unhappiest of them all. Calling a snap election she figured she was certain to win, she has instead been forced to watch her once considerable lead in the polls collapse — May’s Tories have seen their 24-point lead over Labour drop to 1 recently. On top of that, May has been criticized repeatedly throughout the campaign for everything from her repeated media no-shows to her perceived kowtowing to President Donald Trump.
May’s campaign has been a catastrophe
Presenting herself as the Brexit prime minister since she took over after that shock referendum vote last year, May has been forced to steer the ship in a direction she never wanted it to go in the first place. She campaigned to remain in the European Union, warning the U.K. would suffer outside the EU (“the economic arguments are clear”), and predicted that while Brexit Britain would still share intelligence, “that does not mean we would be as safe as if we remain.” Nevertheless, it’s the platform she now owns, and one she’s relentlessly promoted on the campaign trail, at the expense of other issues important to the public.
Despite presenting herself as the strong and stable candidate, the prime minister finds it hard to get her message across. May hates public speaking — reporters close to the action say her hands shake when she addresses a room, and her voice often trembles. Before she talks, she has to pause to prepare herself — a stark contrast to previous leaders like Tony Blair and David Cameron, who visibly enjoyed the chance to speak publicly. May has come under fire for refusing to debate her opponent Jeremy Corbyn, facing repeated accusations that she has run away from the very campaign she called for.
May is also in a constant state of panic. You can see it at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs): Her attempts at jokes — and even at laughter — are weirdly jarring. When questioned by journalists, she retreats completely into her shell — emitting only catchphrases and the odd forced smile. Why does she think her campaign has taken a turn for the worse? “The one poll that matters is the poll on June 8.” Where will an extra £8bn for the NHS, promised in the manifesto, come from? “We have set out, clearly, some of the hard choices that need to be made and how we will address those challenges.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn may have had a good couple of weeks — he has been relatively relaxed in recent media interviews and debates — but his leadership has, in the main, been a grim feat of endurance. His distaste for PMQs matches May’s: Witnessing their back-and-forth over the dispatch box can be like watching two small children forced into a playground fight by larger ones — both just want to be allowed to go home.
Corbyn also dislikes interviews with journalists. But May has more to lose in these interactions. While May looks mostly terrified she’ll be caught somehow, Corbyn can rely on rallies and public meetings to get his point across to supporters.
No one’s really happy
Despite providing May with an unexpectedly robust challenge, Corbyn’s relationship with his own party has been spectacularly unhappy. Twice, a big section of his shadow cabinet have resigned in objection to his leadership. In July 2016, before they passed a vote of no confidence in him, MPs begged him, in tears, to leave. (About to step down himself, former Prime Minister David Cameron got in a final shot during PMQs: “For heaven’s sake man, go!”).
Yet Corbyn stayed put. Party members think it’s neither vanity nor a taste for power keeping him there, but rather a sense of duty to the membership who elected him. It’s widely known in political circles that Corbyn would prefer to step down, but he just doesn’t feel he can desert the far-left wing of the party who finally have a candidate they believe in.
Given the unpopularity of his rivals, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron seemed poised to have a good campaign, but it increasingly seems he will be unable to pull off an electoral coup. Farron looks constantly out of his comfort zone — even appearing uneasy in the minor parties debate.
More damningly, he’s not at ease with his party’s social policies — his campaign has been dominated by a refusal to answer questions about his views on homosexuality. In a TV interview early in the campaign, he refused four times to give a clear answer to the question of whether being gay is a sin. Following reams of negative coverage, he eventually said he did not believe it was — but he has failed to give a clear answer on the matter.
The Conservative Party is still likely to win, despite a growing list of public complaints leveled against them and the late Labour surge. But the next post-Brexit stage of government will be incredibly tough — “the hard s—“, as David Cameron put it. It would be easy to imagine either leader breathing a sigh of relief if their party lost on June 8.
No wonder the majority of British voters are merely enduring this election. Thursday can’t be over soon enough.
Martha Gill is a freelance journalist. She writes about politics, culture, and neuroscience.
Cover: Associated Press