Is Theresa May the new John Major?

Well if I was ever under the illusion that I had any special insights into Britain’s general election campaign, it is now banished. Last week I described the improvement in Labour’s poll ratings as a “dead cat bounce”. It is clearly much more than that. As the election goes into its last lap, it is going to be a lot more interesting.

So what happened? The truth is that we don’t quite know. After the pause caused by the Manchester outrage, we now have a series of new opinion polls, confirming an improvement in Labour’s position. It has advanced to an average of 35% according to Wikipedia, a remarkable achievement when you consider they started the campaign at 25%. Where has this come from? The Conservative poll share has eased by a couple of points to about 44%, but it is still better than where they started, before they mugged Ukip. The position of both the Lib Dems and the Greens has fallen back, as has the SNP in Scotland, though Ukip has struck bottom now. The headline figures are easy enough to see, but what really lies behind the shifts is much harder to say, as is their impact on individual races for seats.

But confidence in the Conservative campaign has been shaken, and Labour is being given more credit. It is particularly striking that Manchester has not helped Theresa May, as most campaigners from both sides thought it would. Indeed the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seized the initiative on Friday by pointing to the alleged failure of British foreign policy to make the world safer, and how police cuts have made things worse. Both points are spurious. Jihadi terrorism has struck Germany and Belgium, countries with a notably more pacific foreign policy than Britain’s. Britain’s interventions are an excuse for the terrorists, and not the real reason – which is hatred for the godless western way of life and a liberal attitude to women. And the security services have been lavished with funds – it is friendly neighbourhood policing that has been hammered – and the effect of that on terrorism is unclear. Never mind; Mr Corbyn delivered his speech in a measured, sober fashion (prime ministerial, I am tempted to say), and both arguments resonated with the public, who are not inclined to trust the political establishment. The Tory response was unmemorable.

This points to an important weakness in the Tory campaign. It is completely and utterly centred on the person of Mrs May, who they then proceed to shield from public interaction. While Mr Corbyn was delivering his speech, Mrs May was hobnobbing with world leaders at a couple of world summits. In itself this sort of distraction is considered to be a positive by campaigners, a chance to look like a world leader in power, but she had nobody of stature left on the home front. And the media were not inclined to give her party an easy ride.

That has to do with a second weakness. Mrs May is not a collegiate leader. Her pronouncements emerge from a small cabal of trusted advisers, without the ground being prepared amongst her colleagues and their media contacts. So it doesn’t take much for the grumbling to start, and this makes good copy. And the grumbling is in full flow. One columnist said that Mrs May had the charisma of an Indesit fridge-freezer. More than one has suggested that this is the most dismal Tory election campaign ever.

I wouldn’t say that. To me that record is held by John Major, both in 1992 (which won unexpectedly) and 1997 (the worst Tory defeat in history). The 1992 election is the better comparison to now. Mr Major was an uncharismatic sort, and he tried to make a virtue of it. He was never able to stamp his authority on his party. I remember thinking in the early stages of the 1992 campaign that the Tories did not look as if they even wanted to win. They were saved by events. The first was a triumphalist rally in Sheffield by the Labour leader Neil Kinnock, which was a disastrous misreading of the zeitgeist. And second was combative last minute switch in the Conservative campaign based on “Labour’s tax bombshell”, one of the most effective general election moves I can remember – which stops me rating the campaign as a whole the direst in Tory history (1997 takes that prize).

That gives two clues as to how the Conservatives can pull the campaign back to the massive landslide we expected at the start. First is the public not liking the prospect of Labour as a government rather than as a protest vote. Mr Kinnock was not considered Prime Ministerial. Second, is through a well-designed and aggressive drive by the Conservatives and their media allies against Labour weaknesses, perhaps on economics or perhaps on national security, in the remaining ten days.

We’ll see. Things could go well for Labour if we see a repeat of the anti-establishment mood evident in the Brexit referendum last year, or in Donald Trump’s victory in the US. “Strong and stable” could have been a campaign slogan for Hillary Clinton – but Mr Trump was able to project enough of an aura of competence to persuade enough people to give him a try – based on his supposed success as a businessman, and his success in getting to be the Republican nominee. Mr Corbyn is exceeding expectations in his campaigning skill, and he comes over as the more straightforward and honest politician compared to Mrs May. So you never know…

And what of my party, the Liberal Democrats? There is good an bad news. The good news is that knocking the shine off Mrs May helps in contests against the Conservatives. The bad news is that in the general polling the party has faded, and the gap between it and the Conservatives is as large as ever. The idea that the party is a more credible opposition than Labour has gained no traction. A good election for Jeremy Corbyn may be good for the Lib Dems strategically, but a failure to progress will pose some very challenging questions for the party.

Meanwhile I will be scouring the media for any evidence I can find as to how the election is developing. I have not got a clear picture yet. But if Theresa May fails to get a convincing majority, she will have nowhere to hide, and her authority would be damaged irreparably. And deservedly so.

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5 thoughts on “Is Theresa May the new John Major?”

  1. Yes its always a good idea to avoid any predictions of the “dead cat bounce” sort. Especially about the future! I’m in print, sometime in 2014, as forecasting GFC part2 by last year. So I didn’t quite get that right! But some of my reasoning ie the build up of private debt in the world’s economies : China, Australia, the USA, the UK especially has been taken up more by the mainstream recently so we’ll have to see how that all turns out!

    I’m not surprised that Jeremy Corbyn has done as well as he has. Of course the tendency of those of more right wing political inclinations always is to associate left wing political opinions with incompetence. I’m not sure why that is. Notwithstanding the odd mistake like making predictions when I know I shouldn’t, I like to think that I don’t fit that stereotype!

    JC is a smart operator. He must be to rise from the relative obscurity of the backbenches to become Labour leader. He’s using his talents well in this campaign too. For example, leaking the Labour manifesto was a clever move. He gets the benefit of public feedback and then is able to tweak it one way or another in response without appearing to be weak and indecisive.

    I still don’t think he’s likely to win. It is too big an ask to come back from 20 points behind when he clearly still doesn’t have the support of most of his Parliamentary colleagues. But, like I said, I know I shouldn’t make predictions! He could yet surprise us all!

    1. To be fair on myself, my “dead cat bounce” prediction was actually two weeks ago, which makes me slightly ahead of the game in noticing that something was going on, even before the Tory manifesto launch. So I could blame it on Tory ineptitude. But that doesn’t convince even me! I had underestimated both Labour and Jeremy Corbyn. As had the Tories.

  2. “The bad news is that in the general polling the party [Lib Dems] has faded”

    Yep. We’ll have to wait and see but the feedback I’m getting is that most voters have had enough of the Brexit debate. That was last year’s argument.

    So whilst both Mrs May and the Lib Dems, albeit for different reasons, probably wanted the primary topic of the election to be Brexit the voters have had other priorities. The campaign has turned out to be much more about the usual things that elections are fought about than might have been expected.

    I’d say one of the reasons that Labour is doing better than expected is that they’ve successfully widened the scope of the discussion. In the public mind the Lib Dems are all about opposing Brexit, having another referendum etc and that’s about it. They’ll pick up the die-hard remainers. But most remainers voted remain on balance. They’ve accepted that the vote went the other way and they want to move on.

    1. Pretty much spot on Peter. As Brexit dropped out of people’s priorities the Lib Dems were left with a split-the-difference manifesto. I think the idea was to try and paint the party as a responsible opposition, but Labour were more adept at appealing to protest voters, and the Lib Dems could do nothing to shake Tory supporting liberals from May. Incidentally Labour’s support for abolishing tuition fees was surely a smart tactical move to fend off any threat from the Lib Dems, whatever one thinks of the viability of the policy. By comparison the Lib Dem promise to reverse benefit cuts (not repeated by Labour) would have little appeal to swing voters. Such is modern politics.

  3. Lib Dems are going to have to a bit of re-thinking about the EU after this election. Somehow they’ve fallen so in love with the EU that they are blind to its obvious faults. There’s no real plan of how these can be fixed even if , somehow, the Remainers manage to keep us in.

    At the heart of the problem is German , and to a lesser extent Dutch, mercantilism which means running a large trade surplus just for the sake of it. When gold was involved in international trade it perhaps might have made some sense. Mercantilist countries could stockpile large quantities of gold. Now they just stockpile other countries’ IOUs. Mainly US Treasury bonds or UK Gilts.

    If a country stockpiles UK Gilts, it follows that our Government has to assume that debt. The total debt is just the sum of all previous deficits. So it doesn’t make any sense to say, as I understand Lib Dem economic policy to be, that it doesn’t much matter if the UK has a high trade deficit but it does matter if the Budget deficit gets too high.

    The BIG problem with the EU at present is that there is no legal way for a deficit country to correct its trade imbalance, if it is part of the eurozone or if its currency is pegged to the euro, without throwing its economy into severe recession.

    It is possible for the UK to correct its trade by devaluing the pound, or leaving the EU to enable us to put up some tariff barriers, but those are not Lib Dem policies either.

    So something has to give somewhere! If the EU is to have any future at all the problem of trade imbalances has to be fixed and soon.

    PS I just made these comments to Katharine on Lib Dem voice who seems a very nice person with her heart in the right place. I’ve been trying, without too much success so far, to get her to think about the economics that has to go with anyone’s politics.

    I think many people on the progressive left are rather like this. “All You Need is Love” maybe OK as a song title but that’s about it.

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