If you’re paying occasional attention to the British election campaign, you probably feel that something dramatic happened when your back was turned. Only a few weeks ago, the Tories were surfing effortlessly back into office on the back of opinion-poll leads that hovered around 18 percent. Today there are scare headlines that their lead has sunk to a mere 5 percent — with one business-media expert suggesting that would translate into a parliamentary majority of a mere two seats! Sell! Sell! Sell!
Well, you can relax somewhat. Other polls show that the governing party still enjoys a lead in double figures. There are only nine days to go, which reduces the risks of accidents. And the smart money is still heavily concentrated on bets favoring the Tories. But the Tory campaign has been a dreadful one. There is at least the possibility of a shock Tory defeat — indeed, the word “shock” would now be an exaggeration. And a Tory majority that fell below, say, 80 MPs would reduce the authority of the prime minister over her party and the Commons for the next five years.
Yesterday Theresa May bestrode the narrow world like a colossus; today there is the merest hint of
False praise on our part, the glimmer of twilight,
Never glad confident morning again.
What lifted up the Tories so high? What has since brought them, as yet gently, down to earth?
What lifted them up was the Brexit referendum result. As I have argued before (yes, yes, at tedious length), Brexit and the Tory party’s embrace of the result healed divisions in the natural conservative vote that had weakened the party since the mid 1970s. Brexit brought back into Tory ranks two large electoral blocs: those patriotic working-class voters abandoned by Labour but also neglected by a “modernizing” Tory establishment that regarded “Europe” as akin to jet propulsion or WiFi as a symbol of up-to-dateness; and the provincial Tory faithful who could see more clearly than their betters that “sharing sovereignty” meant being governed by other people in faraway places. Both blocs, restrained by past loyalties, were nonetheless drifting gradually toward UKIP. Brexit brought them back. UKIP began imploding.
Mrs. May completed these conversions upon becoming prime minister by stating plainly that “Brexit means Brexit,” while the usual fluent liars were explaining that Brexit, properly considered, might well mean remaining inside most of the principal institutions and the legal sovereignty of the European Union. She was promising no retreat, no second referendum. That sealed the deal.
Her governing personality — seemingly calm, competent, authoritative, commonsensical — was a plus factor. Her remark that “politics is not a game” struck a chord with voters weary of Westminster image-making, opinion management, and poll-driven issues. In response, much of the public felt that “the adults” were now in charge. That sentiment, coupled with the Tories’ unqualified embrace of Brexit, delivered the party its sky-high opinion-poll figures. Its first mistake was to believe that this popularity was a response solely to Mrs. May personally and thus to build their campaign almost wholly around her and the “strong and stable” leadership she symbolized or even incarnated.
Other mistakes followed:
1) Though this was supposed to be a “snap” election on the issue of Brexit, it will actually take place seven weeks after the initial announcement. The longer an election campaign, the more time there is for accidents to happen and for other issues to emerge, and so the harder it is to keep the focus on your own favored (i.e., winning) issue — in this case, Brexit. Seven weeks is an eternity in British politics — and on this occasion about two or three weeks longer than was convenient for the Tories. Accidents duly happened and other issues emerged.
2) Shortly before the Tory manifesto was published, statements and articles began to appear suggesting that the party’s vast lead was a great opportunity to be “bold” and to win a mandate for, well, unpopular policies. Losing a few seats would be a price well worth paying, it was said, for radical reforms. One might have thought that “Yes, Prime Minister” had inoculated people in politics against this kind of logic. “Very brave, if I may say so, Prime Minister,” was Sir Humphrey’s never-failing technique for knocking bright ideas out of the ballpark. On this occasion, the Tory manifesto, when it appeared, contained the bright idea of a tax on the wealth of the elderly to pay for the “social care” of the geriatric. Andrew Stuttaford (of this parish) has led the campaign against this tax — describing it as “an Exocet aimed at anyone over 65 with a house” — and it quickly got named “the dementia tax.” Because it was a redistributive measure aimed to hit savers, the elderly, and the infirm, it has managed both to alienate voters who disproportionately support the Tories and to revive fears among traditional Labour voters that the health service was at risk. And according to canvassers, it caused Tory support on the doorstep to plummet. It was an unforced error of real magnitude.
Popular distrust of the Tories as what Mrs. May herself once called ‘the nasty party’ (in a bid to change its image and direction) has revived.
3) What followed was a forced error. Mrs. May had no real choice but to reverse the policy and ditch the dementia tax in the middle of the campaign. But that decision, though unavoidable, nonetheless undermined the slogan that allegedly personified her: “strong but stable.” She now looks neither, though she is recovering somewhat. Exactly how the policy will change is still uncertain — there will supposedly be a ceiling on how much the government will seize from people’s capital assets. Until that figure is known and largely accepted, the Tories are in peril. For the moment, the bleeding seems to have stopped. Ironically, however, popular distrust of the Tories as what Mrs. May herself once called “the nasty party” (in a bid to change its image and direction) has revived. While it lasts, it’s likely to undermine the party’s stance on all issues, including Brexit.
4) The Manchester bombing was the very worst kind of “accident” that can disturb an election. So far, however, it has actually helped the government, by distracting attention from the controversy over the dementia tax. In addition, the seemingly universal decision of British society to smother the tragedy under a blanket of sentimentality about the victims and the city of Manchester has pushed aside the vital questions: How are we to combat these atrocities and prevent their occurrence? Either no one knows the answers to these questions or, more likely, they sense that any answers likely to be effective will also be unacceptable in the current state of public, political, and legal opinion.
Only fringe voices (UKIP’s Paul Nuttall, for instance) suggest apparent solutions such as the internment of terrorist suspects — of whom there are supposedly 23,000 now wandering around the country, with more expected from post-war ISIS. Most official opinion, as Douglas Murray eerily predicted in his powerful new book, The Strange Death of Europe, seems paralyzed by a problem, Islamist terrorism, that has been accommodated by European policies, confounds the solutions on offer, and requires actions contrary to conventional liberal pieties. All of which creates a pervasive, if temporary, sense of deep unease throughout the country while the sentimentality plays itself out. The Tories are particularly vulnerable on such grounds because Mrs. May, as home secretary, has been responsible for counter-terrorism for the past six years. And though she has won some legal victories, the problem has grown visibly worse. Tory ministers have been saved from the consequences of this by the extraordinary fact that the leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, is among a handful of extreme left-wingers who volubly supported the Provisional IRA while it was bombing British cities in the 1970s and 1980s and who, still more extraordinarily, refuses to recant his support. He is the one man who cannot make the government look weak, ineffective, or clueless on terrorism. To reverse the proverb: In the country of one-eyed men, a blind man is still at a disadvantage.
5) Oddly enough, though Corbyn is the best Christmas gift the Tories have ever been given, all in all, he is presenting them with some problems. His popularity with the 18-to-35 voting bloc is high and rising at a moment when the Tories have been losing ground among older voters. Some of this popularity stems from the simultaneous rise in support among young people for what they call “socialism” or “social justice” (i.e., getting free things paid for by “the rich”). Corbyn has been spinning that yarn for his entire political life, and he’s learned to put it to music. Much more significant, however, is that ordinary voters, including supporters of other parties, are responding favorably to his courtesy and good manners. A good case can be made that Corbyn has devoted his life to evil causes and that he would be a danger to freedom and democracy if voted into power. But in television debates and interviews, he seems a kind, patient, and reasonable man whom you can trust. As a result — and against all the known odds — the Labour vote has been rising through the campaign. He probably won’t continue to catch up. Indeed, he will almost certainly fall back again — a radio interview he gave today made the average car crash look like a vicarage tea party. But when the Tories are themselves flailing about, he is performing too well for comfort.
All of which has today forced Theresa May and the Tories to relaunch their campaign. They took the most sensible and practical approach to doing so; they made Brexit its centerpiece, asking which party the voters wanted to negotiate for Britain. If they win well or narrowly — a massive landslide now looks out of reach — both May and Brexit will legitimately claim some of the credit.
But it will be Brexit wot done it.