How the tide turned for ‘strong and stable’ Theresa May
The Conservative leader underestimated the threat of Corbyn’s ‘coalition of chaos’
Still sleepy after the Easter bank holiday, Westminster was looking forward to a quiet week on the morning of April 18th when word came that Theresa May was about to make a statement outside 10 Downing Street.
That setting is reserved for major announcements, such as declarations of war and prime-ministerial resignations. Or the calling of elections.
If there was some doubt about her intentions it was because she had repeatedly ruled out an early election, sending out her spokesman a couple of weeks earlier to say it was not going to happen.
Conservative newspapers, notably the Daily Mail and the Sun, moved smartly into position as bloodthirsty attack dogs trained on Corbyn
The prime minister said she had decided to go to the country three years early because opposition parties were threatening to thwart Brexit and undermine her negotiations with the European Union.
Everybody knew the real reason was that a succession of polls had put the Conservatives more than 20 points ahead of Labour, whose leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was universally viewed as an insuperable liability for his party. Tom Blenkinsop, who represents Middlesbrough South, in northeastern England, was the first Labour MP to make a dash for the lifeboats, announcing all of three minutes after May’s statement that he would not contest the election.
May had started her campaign on a U-turn wrapped around a falsehood, but it didn’t seem to matter, because she had a reputation as a straight talker, the dowdy antidote to David Cameron’s slickness that the country was looking for.
“I think, I hope, what people will see is I am somebody who likes to just get on with the job and get the job done, and what I want to do is to be able to do that for the future,” she said after her election announcement.
A few hours later she was in Bolton, in northerwestern England, for her first campaign event, contrasting her promise of “strong and stable leadership” with the “coalition of chaos” that Corbyn would need to form a government.
Within days Conservative posters, buses and merchandise appeared, dominated by the prime minister’s name, with that of the party almost invisible. This was to be a presidential campaign, highlighting the contrast between May’s strength and stability and Corbyn’s alleged unfitness to lead the country.
May won the Conservative leadership without a contest last year, after her rival Andrea Leadsom pulled out of the race. May had never served as chancellor of the exchequer or leader of the opposition and was an unfamiliar figure to most voters.
As home secretary for six years she was a secretive politician who relied to an unusual extent on two advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who were to become her joint chiefs of staff at No 10. She brought the same awkward approach to her role as prime minister, chilly with her cabinet and distant from her MPs. Now she had called an election without consulting a single Conservative member of parliament, placing herself at the centre of a highly personalised campaign.
Lynton Crosby, the Australian political strategist known as the Wizard of Oz, who ran Cameron’s successful 2015 campaign, was put in charge of May’s.
And Conservative newspapers, notably the Daily Mail and the Sun, moved smartly into position as bloodthirsty attack dogs trained on Corbyn.
The Labour leader launched his campaign in an oak-panelled room at Church House, the headquarters of the Church of England, with a speech that won praise from usually unsympathetic commentators. Embracing the role of underdog, Corbyn set himself in opposition to the political, economic and media establishment.
“They say I don’t play by the rules – their rules. We can’t win, they say, because we don’t play their game. They’re quite right: I don’t. And a Labour government elected on June 8th won’t play by their rules. These rules have created a cosy cartel which rigs the system in favour of a few powerful and wealthy individuals and corporations. It’s a rigged system set up by the wealth extractors for the wealth extractors,” he said.
“They think there are rules in politics which if you don’t follow, by doffing your cap to powerful people, accepting that things can’t really change, then you can’t win. But of course they do not want us to win. Because when we win it is the people, not the powerful, who win.”
An MP since 1983, Corbyn belonged to the far left of the party, voting hundreds of times against the Labour leadership both in government and in opposition. When he sought his party’s leadership in 2015 he was initially dismissed as a token challenger to the mainstream candidates, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall.
During the leadership campaign Corbyn drew unprecedented crowds at rallies, inspiring tens of thousands of people to join Labour. His victory was emphatic, but it was never accepted by Labour MPs, and after last year’s Brexit referendum they moved against him, orchestrating mass resignations from the shadow cabinet to force him from office. He refused to budge, and when Owen Smith challenged him for the leadership Corbyn won easily among the membership.
When the election was called most Labour MPs expected a disastrous outcome for their party, and they were determined that Corbyn and his allies should bear sole responsibility for it. The results of local elections in England and Wales on May 4th appeared to bear out these grim predictions, as Labour took a battering.
The Ukip vote collapsed, and its voters flooded towards the Conservatives, reinforcing May’s confidence that she could reshape the political map. Her campaign appearances were almost exclusively in Labour-held seats, fuelling speculation that she could increase her working majority of 17 by more than 100.
When Labour’s draft manifesto was leaked, on May 11th, most commentators saw it as yet another manifestation of the chaos surrounding Corbyn and his campaign.
Reaching for Gerald Kaufman’s description of Labour’s 1983 manifesto as “the longest suicide note in history”, the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail described the leaked manifesto as a blueprint to return Britain to the 1970s, as others spoke of a “hard left” menu of socialist aspirations.
The 1983 manifesto called for unilateral nuclear disarmament, the abolition of the House of Lords, withdrawal from the European Economic Community and the renationalisation of British Telecom, British Aerospace and British Shipbuilding.
Corbyn’s manifesto, written by a small team led by the leader’s policy adviser Andrew Fisher, committed Britain to spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence and to keep the Trident nuclear-weapons system (although it added somewhat redundantly that nuclear weapons should be used with caution).
Labour would bring Royal Mail back under public ownership and gradually renationalise the rail system, both popular policies. On energy it would follow Germany’s lead in allowing state-owned companies to compete with private providers.
There would be extra funding for the health service and social care, third-level tuition fees would be abolished, and pensions would increase. And Labour would tackle the housing crisis by building 100,000 council homes every year.
By the time Labour functionaries and their union allies met to discuss the draft document it was clear that the leak was not the disaster it had appeared to be. For the first time since the campaign began the focus was on Labour’s policies, and many of them appeared to be popular.
May had sought to make the election a choice about Brexit and leadership. But Corbyn and his advisers, led by the former Guardian associate editor and columnist Seumas Milne and the left-wing campaigner Andrew Murray, decided that Labour should talk about the economy and public services rather than about Brexit.
May was still soaring in the polls, however, and she toured Labour-held seats in the northeast of England, pouring scorn on Corbyn’s ideas.
“Across the country today, traditional Labour supporters are increasingly looking at what Jeremy Corbyn believes in and are appalled. We have learnt from the shambolic leak of his manifesto that at the heart of his plan is a desire to go back to the disastrous socialist policies of the 1970s. Labour voters are appalled because they see a leader who can’t lead,” she said.
Nick Timothy was meanwhile helping to shape the Conservative manifesto, arguing for a sharp break with the free-market orthodoxy that had prevailed since Margaret Thatcher’s ascendancy. A grammar school-educated son of working-class parents in Birmingham, Timothy is an admirer of Joseph Chamberlain, the 19th-century social reformer who was once mayor of the city.
Timothy wanted to shift the Conservatives’ focus towards working people who were struggling to make ends meet, embracing a bigger role for government in shaping industrial policy. A social conservative, Timothy also favoured controlling immigration, which he saw as a key to connecting with working-class voters.
When it was reported that the chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, and Timothy had sworn at each other over the manifesto, Hammond said he “did not recognise” the story, dismissing it as “media tittle-tattle” – the Westminster term for true.
May launched the manifesto in Halifax, a Labour seat the Conservatives hoped to capture by winning over former Ukip voters and Labour supporters who backed Brexit. Emboldened by an apparently unassailable poll lead, she risked upsetting her party’s traditional supporters, scrapping Cameron’s pledges not to increase tax rates and to protect the value of pensions.
It promised to introduce a means test for pensioners’ winter fuel allowance and, in its most controversial initiative, said that old people with property worth more than £100,000 – about €117,000 on Thursday morning, but only about €114,000 on Friday morning, after currency markets reacted to the shock of the election result – would have to pay for their home care, although they will not lose their homes before they die.
“People are rightly sceptical of politicians who claim to have easy answers to deeply complex problems,” May said. “It is the responsibility of leaders to be straight with people about the challenges ahead and the hard work required to overcome them.”
Conservative voters disagreed, and canvassers reported great hostility on the doorsteps towards the proposal, which became known as the dementia tax because it would disproportionately affect people with debilitating conditions requiring care for years.
Panicked by the reports from candidates, May decided to make a U-turn, promising that there would be a cap, or limit, on how much anyone would have to pay for social care in their lifetime.
As the campaign drew to its close Corbyn appeared at huge rallies every day, repeating his message of hope and radical change
It was the first time a major party had torn up a central element of its manifesto during a general election campaign, but May insisted that nothing had changed, claiming that she was simply clarifying the policy.
“What I’ve done today is I’ve seen the scaremongering, frankly, that we’ve seen over the weekend. I’ve seen the way that Jeremy Corbyn wants to sneak into No 10 by playing on the fears of older and vulnerable people, and I’ve clarified what we will be putting in the green paper which I set out in the manifesto,” she said.
It was a turning point in the campaign, the moment when the British public looked at the prime minister and concluded that she was not the straight-talking, “strong and stable” leader they had thought her to be. May’s personal ratings began to tumble – and with them the Conservatives’ lead over Labour.
“Strong and stable”
As May’s reputation for strength and stability evaporated the Conservatives had little to offer voters in their manifesto, which promised to replace a free hot lunch for schoolchildren with a cold breakfast and to open the way for a return of foxhunting.
At the same time a popular manifesto had lifted Labour in the polls, and voters were starting to take another look at Corbyn, whose favourability ratings started to move upwards.
Just as the public began to turn away from May, Labour started to benefit from the rules governing broadcasters, which meant that the two parties had to be given equal time on the news. Corbyn spoke at rallies all over the country, attracting huge crowds, almost always in safe Labour seats.
Usually, however, the rallies were in places that shared a BBC or ITV region with one or more marginal seats, ensuring that voters in those constituencies saw Corbyn’s crowds on the local television news.
Then, on the night of Monday, May 22nd, Salman Abedi detonated a bomb in his backpack at Manchester Arena at the end of an Ariana Grande concert, killing 22 people as well as himself. Campaigning in the election was suspended, and May was forced into the role of a prime minister in a time of crisis.
Contrary to expectations, however, the atrocity had no apparent impact on the campaign, as the two parties continued to converge in the polls, with Labour gaining while the Conservatives lost ground. When campaigning resumed, and Corbyn linked the Manchester bombing to Britain’s military interventions abroad, the Conservatives accused him of blaming Britain for the terrorist attack.
But when Jeremy Paxman interviewed the two leaders separately in front of an audience, it was the prime minister who was booed and jeered. The Conservatives stepped up their attacks on Corbyn, highlighting his links with Irish republicans and his warm words for Hamas and Hizbullah.
Last Saturday night three men mowed down pedestrians on London Bridge before going on a killing rampage through Borough Market armed with long knives. Armed police shot the three assailants dead within eight minutes of the start of the attack, but eight innocent people were dead and 48 others were injured.
The following morning, three hours after the political parties agreed to suspend campaigning for the day, May stood outside 10 Downing Street and delivered a blatantly political statement on the attack, declaring that “enough is enough” and promising tougher action to counter terrorism.
Her decision to politicise the atrocity was a miscalculation that allowed Labour to highlight the fact that as home secretary she cut police numbers by 20,000. Labour canvassers were taken aback in the final days of the campaign by the anger about May’s record on policing that they found on the doorsteps.
As the campaign drew to its close Corbyn appeared at huge rallies every day, repeating his message of hope and radical change. The Daily Mail devoted 13 pages to portraying Corbyn and his closest political allies as “apologists for terror”, and the prime minister promised to dispense with human rights in the fight against terrorism.
The scaremongering backfired, along with May’s entire gamble on an early election, and it was clear soon after polls closed on Thursday night that instead of winning a bigger mandate she had lost her majority.
Hours later, seven weeks after she called the election, the prime minister was back on the steps of Downing Street, promising “to lead Britain forward at this critical time for our country”. But her capacity to provide that leadership was now greatly diminished.