Why Theresa May Could Be Damaged Even If She Wins U.K. Election

  • Tories seen as keen to replace May if she fails to win big
  • Candidates ready to tell May to widen circle of advisers

May, Corbyn Make Final Push Before U.K. Election

Theresa May called the snap U.K. election to strengthen her position, but instead it threatens to leave her weaker.

Senior Conservative ministers and candidates are privately furious at the way the party has mismanaged the campaign, after its poll lead over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party collapsed from more than 20 percentage points seven weeks ago to as little as one point now.

The upshot is that even if she is returned as prime minister on Thursday, May will face immediate demands from her own team to change the way she runs the government, according to Tory ministers, candidates and party officials, who asked not to named discussing internal affairs.

May called the election in April, saying she wanted voters to give her a mandate to deliver her vision of a clean break with the European Union, but the internal Tory backlash over the failures of her campaign now seem likely to make her position more perilous than before. The result adds to the political uncertainty in the U.K. and potentially weakens May in talks with the EU due to begin later this month.

The Negotiator: What Election Tells Us About May as Brexit Nears

May’s critics inside the party blame her over-reliance on the advice of a handful of key aides and their failure to consult more widely before deciding on policies and strategies. It’s a situation they are determined to change.

This tightly-controlled approach led to mistakes in the campaign over key policies -- including the U-turn on elderly-care funding -- that have damaged May’s reputation for competence, candidates said.

“Even if she wins a comfortable, if not overwhelming, majority, it’s difficult to see May leading the Tories into the next election,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “I’m not sure the party would want to risk her against a Labour leader who might look more like an alternative prime minister than Jeremy Corbyn does.”

Campaign Legacy

Some of May’s supporters were initially predicting a landslide victory with a majority of perhaps 150 seats, but they now fear they could end up with minimal gains, or even potentially fewer seats in Parliament than they had before she called the vote. If the Tories lose their majority -- as one projection from YouGov suggested last week -- May would almost certainly face calls to resign.

“There’s definitely going to be a legacy from this,” said Stewart Wood, a former adviser to Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Especially damaging was May’s decision midway through the campaign to reverse her plan to charge dementia patients and other adults needing care a potentially unlimited amount until their assets including the value of their homes were eroded to 100,000 pounds ($130,000).

May began her campaign in presidential style, with an emphasis on her personal brand. Yet, Wood said, she lacks her own personal following among Tory lawmakers and their support will be more conditional on how she performs than automatic loyalty.


“There’s a sense that she is flappable and that pressure on her even at the expense of her embarrassment might be worth the prize,” he said. “Even if she wins I think there will be damage from the fact that she’s put herself out there so strongly and all the damage goes back to her character as well as the policies.”

It’s possible the complaints are misplaced and will evaporate in the event of a Tory landslide. May’s election strategists last week took the rare step of breaking their campaign silence to publicly mock the pollster YouGov over its forecast of a hung Parliament. 

Some Tories welcome the apparent surge in Labour support. David Cameron’s former special adviser, Giles Kenningham, who now runs PR consultancy Trafalgar Strategy, said the tightening polls will help “focus the voters’ minds and mobilize the Tory base to go out and vote.”

But May will need to hit the ground running with “radical” domestic policies if she’s re-elected, to show she has more to offer than Brexit, he said.

May’s mistakes will also make her own lawmakers quicker to judge her if she struggles as Brexit talks unfold, according to Bale. “They’ll be thinking pretty soon about who might be best placed to lead the party into the next election and be looking out for any slip-ups or compromises-betrayals in the Brexit negotiations. Her leadership, then, isn’t that strong or that stable.”

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