May Battles Against Complacency as U.K. Election Lead Slips Away

  • Measure of the pound’s volatility is at highest since October
  • May reverts to Brexit rhetoric with campaign in final stretch

May, Corbyn Face Off in U.K. Election Q&A

Theresa May began the U.K. election campaign warning that pollsters giving her a 20-point lead could be wrong. With her lead now slashed, she’s hoping they really are. 

A series of missteps by May and her advisers, along with a populist Labour campaign, have put the prime minister on the defensive. Activists no longer laugh when she raises the prospect of a Corbyn victory at her rallies and some have questioned the wisdom of building a campaign around her own personal brand, urging people to vote for “Theresa May and her team.”

Investors have awoken to the fact that May’s promise of “strong and stable” government -- never mind a landslide to match Tony Blair’s in 1997 -- could be in jeopardy with the pound dipping after a specific poll showed May’s Conservative Party leading the Labour Party by just five points.

“The Tories are right to be worried if the momentum looks to be with Labour, but they can still turn it around,” Andrew Hawkins, chairman of pollsters ComRes Ltd., said in a telephone interview.

With a nation still in shock over the Manchester bombing and June 8 elections round the corner, May got back to the campaign trail and reverted to her tested lines on Brexit: That Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn cannot be trusted to navigate Britain through two years of talks.

“It’s important as people come closer to that vote -- that’s only next week -- that they focus on the choice that’s there before them,” the prime minister told activists at a rally in Twickenham, southwest London, on Monday. “If I lose just six seats my government loses its majority, that could mean in 10 days time a government in chaos with Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10,” the prime minister’s residence in Downing Street.

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‘A Blowhard?’

But gone was the confidence when she stunned Britain by calling a snap election on April 18. On the day of the announcement, an ICM/Guardian poll gave May’s Tories a lead over Labour of 21 points and surveys in the following weekend’s newspapers suggested leads of 24 and 25 points.

Now, she is vulnerable to attack. Interviewer Jeremy Paxman quizzed May about her U-turns, in an interview on Sky News on Monday: “You have backed down over social care, and over national insurance. If I was in Brussels, I would think you are a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire.”

Her rival on the other hand has grown more relaxed, holding his own against the same interviewer who has a reputation for being a rottweiler in his style of questioning. In one instance, Corbyn won a big round of applause when asked about whether he’d want to abolish monarchy: “Do you know what? I had a very nice chat with the Queen.”

May’s strategy seemed to be working in the early part of the campaign. The Conservatives made massive gains in the May 4 local elections and candidates reported voters spontaneously using the words strong and stable on the doorstep. Corbyn was lost and Tories eyed a landslide.

Read more about what polling swings mean for the U.K. election

In a sign of her ambition, she chose Labour-held Halifax to launch the Conservative manifesto on May 18. But just 11 days later she was campaigning in Twickenham, a Conservative held district where Liberal Democrat former cabinet minister Vince Cable is seeking to win his way back into Parliament.

What was expected to be a parade back into office with a massively increased majority had become a battle. It was gradual, but there are clear landmarks on the road.

On May 11, Labour’s manifesto was leaked to the newspapers before the party’s ruling national executive had the chance to approve it. The Conservatives crowed that its early release showed a party in disarray, but Labour’s election co-ordinator, Ian Lavery, reflected that the leaker had “done us a favor.”

Labour gained far more publicity for popular policies on renationalization of the railways, abolition of student tuition fees and hiring more police than would have been the case if it had been launched conventionally.

Dementia Tax

While May and her colleagues questioned Labour’s ability to run the economy and pay for their promises, Corbyn’s party gained momentum. By contrast, May’s own manifesto launch came to be seen as a defining blunder by her and her team.

A policy on social care briefed to newspapers the night before the launch outlined a plan to make elderly people pay for the costs of their own care until their total assets dwindled to 100,000 pounds ($130,000). A cap on the amount they would have to pay was removed and charities and opposition candidates branded it a “dementia tax.”

The Tory lead suddenly began to narrow.

Four days after announcing the policy, May reversed it, promising a new absolute limit on the amount anyone would be asked to pay for their care in old age. “Nothing has changed, nothing has changed,” the prime minister told reporters in Wrexham on 22 May. The journalists present -- and Labour politicians -- disagreed, branding her “weak and wobbly” rather than “strong and stable.” Even her own ministers were dismayed.

Eleven hours after May announced her reversal, Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old born in Britain to Libyan parents, detonated a suicide bomb at a pop concert at Manchester Arena. The worst terrorist attack on British soil for 12 years killed 22 people, including children. Campaigning was suspended.

‘Imminent’ Attack

As May announced the threat level was raised to its highest rating and soldiers were deployed on the streets to prepare for a possible “imminent” attack, analysts struggled to assess the impact of the atrocity on the election.

After a break of three days, Corbyn delivered a speech in which he suggested that the U.K.’s involvement in foreign wars had made the country a target for jihadists. May hit back, accusing the Labour leader of blaming Britain for bringing terrorism upon itself.

May, who began the campaign cautioning voters that polls have been wrong before in 2015 and at the Brexit referendum, was flying from a NATO meeting in Brussels to the Group of Seven summit in Sicily when a poll in the Times newspaper dropped. It put Labour on 38 percent to the Conservatives’ 43, the tightest gap since May became prime minister last July.

To be sure, Labour’s rise could help May by focusing voters’ minds on the choice of premier as she focuses on Corbyn and the people around him, such as Labour’s home-affairs spokeswoman Diane Abbott who on television compared changing her views on the IRA to changing hairstyles.

“The bottom line is that voters will vote for a leader in charge of Brexit negotiations and security when we look to be under threat and that’s what we’ll be seeing from Theresa May’s campaign in the coming days,” Hawkins said. “They’ll just have to hammer this through.”

— With assistance by Svenja O'Donnell

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