Win or Lose, Theresa May is Fighting Her Last Election

In June 1987, Margaret Thatcher seemed to be coasting to a landslide. Labour - despite being led by a political ingénu whom most could not envisage as prime minister - was running a good campaign.

One week before the election, a poll showed a dramatic fall in Thatcher’s lead. Suddenly, the leader feared that she might lose. Late at night at CCHQ, she berated a baby-faced aide. She swung the “metaphorical handbag” around the room with wild abandon.

When she left, Willie Whitelaw the Deputy Prime Minister said to the aide: "That is a woman who will never fight another election campaign."  

The day became known as “Wobbly Thursday”. Two things happened: Thatcher won but Whitelaw proved correct; Michael Dobbs, nicknamed Westminster’s baby-faced assassin, went on holiday and took revenge by writing a novel about post-Thatcher politics. He called it House of Cards.

So right now at Tory High Command a young aide could be plotting the next great political thriller.

Conservatives remain confident, Labour still see Corbyn as a liability

Of course, history does not repeat itself. However, it is one of the only guides we have. Most election campaigns see unexpected moments, when even the surest observer doubts. Famously, the polls were wrong in 1992; Labour was heading to victory in 1997 then a poll showed John Major within 7% of Tony Blair’s New Labour.

We are only seven years from Cleggmania and it is easy to forget that two years ago David Cameron went into the campaign confident but mid-campaign the polls shifted and few expected him to be able to form any government let alone a majority one.

What is happening now appears - at least on the surface - to be different. In 1987 and 1997, the two shock polls were rogues. The campaign narratives shifted once other polls indicated the race had not fundamentally changed.

In 1987, the Tories were running a boring campaign; its ineptitude was not in the same league as the one that Theresa May has run: a manifesto u-turn, robotic, even imcomprehensible, performances in interviews and a no show at a debate. Something has happened.

Yet what some polls are expecting us to believe is the biggest campaign shift in modern political history. The nearest precedent we have for this is 1974 when Edward Heath lost his snap “Who Governs” election.

Yes, Jeremy Corbyn has outperformed expectations and seen modest rises in his personal approval ratings; Labour - in terms of momentum  - have run a fair campaign. Despite the polls, there is no chatter from the ground about a shift: Conservatives remain confident, Labour still see Corbyn as a liability. Other beneath-the-headline poll figures, such as the economy and Brexit, favour the Tories. Any model that predicts large Labour gains is based on huge voter turnout from voters who sat out 2015.

So really - objectively - can we say that Labour have been good enough to upturn expectations?

The answer has to be no. While the polls force us to examine the possibility that there might be an upset, the probability remains that May will win big: despite Trump and Brexit, politics has not become a “credibile est, quia ineptum est”. Yet that the alteratives are even being discussed is why May is fighting her last election.

Thatcher wobbled. May appears to have gone through a political breakdown.

May’s will be a hollow victory

In the last of the leaders’ debates, May performed competently. She came under sustained pressure on the NHS and social care - an undeniable weak point. It is clear she lacks the empathy of a Blair or Cameron, but she was at her strongest when discussing Brexit and the audience were on her side. She was fluent (ish) and did not say “Strong and Stable” once. Perhaps Lynton Crosby is locked in a room somewhere.

Corbyn, on the other hand, put in his weakest. His other performances have shown his affable and passionate side, on Question Time he was at times tetchy, vague and unfocused. He lost the audience over his stance on Trident. Corbynistas may rail but this is where public opinion stands. His performance was what many expected from him for the whole campaign.

The election might have been encapsulated by one Question Time voter who said: I disagree with you, but I’ll vote for you. To May.

Anything can happen. On 9th June, we might wake up to find Jeremy Corbyn smiling on the steps of Downing Street. It remains far more likely that it will be a Tory landslide - not as large as it could have been though. But May’s will be a hollow victory.

There has been no passion and she has failed to outline her vision of a different Conservatism. Her weaknesses unraveled her aura of invincibility at the worst moment. Practically, Brexit negotiations make a putsch unlikely; she might even be allowed a few further years should her party judge her negotiations a success. That is all though. To be spooked by a Kinnock or a Miliband is one thing, but by a party led by a leader who, a few short weeks ago, was merely the butt of jokes is quite another. The Tories - always so ruthless to their leaders - will not allow that again.

All political careers end in failure. The seeds of that failure are planted early though.

May is now in decline. The far more interesting question, for Labour and for Brexit, is what happens to Corbyn.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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