UK election: campaign shifts gear

Most remarkable feature is absence of any serious discussion of Brexit

One hit the campaign trail with the acclamation of her party ringing in her ears and polls pointing to a landslide victory. The other led his party into election season with his colleagues openly hostile to his leadership, the media deriding him and the polls writing him off. Yet the latest skirmishes involving Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn show how the UK election campaign has evolved in a few short weeks.

In separate back-to-back interviews this week, it was the prime minister who appeared defensive and ill-at-ease, and the Labour leader who radiated self-assurance and calm. Notwithstanding a stumble on BBC radio, when he could not put a figure on his party's childcare plan, Corbyn carried his recent good form into last night's televised debate. May, a stilted interviewee whose stage-managed campaign is designed to keep unscripted moments to a minimum, again refused to take part.

The Conservatives retain a commanding lead in the polls, and while many Labour policies, in particular on public services and infrastucture, are popular with voters, Corbyn is vulnerable on national security and defence – issues that have come to the fore in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing. Yet the longer the campaign goes on the farther May’s ratings slip. A projection by YouGov on Wednesday showed the Tories could even fall short of a majority – an unthinkable prospect when May called the snap election last month.

The most remarkable feature of the campaign is what is absent; namely, any serious discussion of Brexit. The next British government will immediately enter into the biggest, most complex and potentially most disruptive set of negotiations in generations. The outcome will radically reshape the UK's relationship with Europe and, by extension, the rest of the world. Beyond superficial catchphrases, however, May has refused to flesh out her aims and priorities for those talks, while Labour, hobbled by its own divisions on the issue, is eager to steer the campaign elsewhere. By failing to level with the electorate about the painful negotiations that await, the two main parties are storing up trouble for themselves.