‘You’ve arrived back in a country that’s on the verge of a socialist revolution,” a friend joked to me a few hours after I landed at Heathrow. Having listened to the news on the way back from the airport, I found this barb a touch too close for comfort. Everyone here in England is agreed that this election is a peculiar and unpredictable one, in which almost anything could happen. For a while now, polling in Britain has been poor, and the public and the press have both noticed the decline. In consequence, confusion abounds. Depending on whom you ask, the story changes dramatically. Some say that the Tories are headed for a landslide; others are convinced that Labour will squeak through; still others prognosticate that all will stay the same. Will the fourth plebiscite in four years have been much ado about nothing?
Certainly, Prime Minister Theresa May is less confident than she expected to be. When, two months ago, she called a surprise election, it seemed that she couldn’t lose. Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn was seen as extreme and unpopular; her honeymoon as prime minister had not yet ended; and the electoral math made her mantle as Brexit’s defender almost impossible to undermine. The Tories, polling showed, enjoyed a remarkable 20-point lead. And then . . . something shifted. More swiftly than was anticipated, the Labourites came home to their tribe. The promise of “strength” and “resolution” upon which May had built her presidential-esque campaign was undermined by embarrassing reversal. And the Labour party’s Bennite pitch, unthinkable just ten years ago, proved a lesser liability than convention had assumed it would. Remarkably, the race began to tighten. May began muttering about the “only poll that matters.” The Left began asking, “What if?” And the pundits threw their hands up in the air. They are still holding them aloft.
There are a number of reasons for this widespread uncertainty. The first is that Britain seems to be reverting to its old two-party system, and nobody is sure what that will look like in practice. Unusually, this contest is a straight-up duel between Labour and the Conservatives, with the other players relegated to ignominious also-ran status. Having lost their way during their five-year coalition with the Conservatives, the hapless Liberal Democrats are on the verge of becoming irrelevant; having achieved its aim in last year’s Brexit vote, UKIP is an outfit without a defining cause; and, having seen many of its fringier proposals echoed by a leftward-charging Labour party, the Greens are scrabbling for unique ideas. Where their voters will end up is anybody’s guess. In Scotland, the story is similar: Once ascendant, the SNP has discovered to its chagrin that voters in the Caledonia are tired of referenda, and that, post-Brexit, independence has lost much of its luster. That presents an opportunity for the Tories, who have been caustic on traditional issues such as jobs and education. This is not a year for the margins.
Nor, it seems, is it a year for the center. Not since the early 1980s has Labour leaned leftward like this. Gone is the Blairite instinct toward “third way” politics and “compassionate conservative” fusionism; back are the penchant for centralized government, the promise of nationalization, and the “smell of crankishness” that Orwell so disdained. By American standards, the British Tories are the wettest of the wet. But when compared to Red Jeremy, they sound like Louie Gohmert.
It is unclear how this will shake out. May has been keen to tie Brexit to everything, which, in the pro-Leave parts of the country that do not normally vote Tory, may give her party a needed shot in the arm. But she is still a Conservative, and the mistrust runs deep — especially since Labour is back to its roots. And what of the Remainers? Sure, Corbyn is seen as a touch “out there.” But if this is a binary choice . . .
The third confounding factor is the Tory strategy itself. For good or for ill, the Conservatives are running a cultish, monomaniacal campaign linked inextricably to May. Driving around the country, I have been astonished to see May’s name, rather than the party’s, put front and center wherever politicking is being done. Where traditionally it would be the “Conservatives” doing the “fighting” for this or that, this year it is “Theresa.” “Theresa May, standing up for Britain,” reads the standard language. And there, three feet tall, is her face. Each candidate, too, has been shackled to the PM. On their literature, there are two names: “Jonathan Djanogly,” exclaim the signs around me, “Standing with Theresa.” Two months ago, this seemed like a masterstroke, for back then, May was more popular than the party she led. Today — now that she has been shown to be human, and a politician no less! — it looks less so. Perhaps this will teach us a lesson: Policy matters, too.
All of that said, I suspect that she’s going to get away with it — and maybe even triumph. Early in the game, a landslide looked likely. That, I reckon, will not happen. But a majority of 60–70 MPs seems eminently possible. Frustratingly for Labour, much of its recent progress has come in areas it doesn’t need — yes, they’re racking up the numbers, but in places that they already dominated. (To understand why this matters, look at Hillary Clinton’s totals in California.) The Tories, by contrast, are nicely spread out, surging in close races, and challenging hard in traditional Labour strongholds. Going door to door yesterday in the Middleborough South, I was struck by how potent an issue Brexit still is for many in the left-leaning Northeast. Time and time again, I met habitual Labourites who have decided to cross the aisle — toward the pro-Brexit Tories, away from the “condescending” Left. If just half of them follow through, it’ll be a good night for May.