With Leaders Like This, Britain Should Panic

The U.K. election has been a contest of inadequates.

False advertising.

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

At a time when the U.K.'s most pressing need is for competent leadership, it's saddled with two of the most bungling party leaders in living memory. Even a well-run government would struggle to control the short-term damage likely to be inflicted by Brexit. Whatever happens in Thursday's vote, there's no prospect of a well-run government by Friday. On this evidence,  exaggerating how much trouble Britain is in would be hard.

Prime Minister Theresa May called this snap election -- after suspending a law requiring fixed-term parliaments -- because she was sure of a huge win. She had every reason to think so. Jeremy Corbyn is an unreconstructed old-school leftist and every Tory's dream of a Labour Party leader. His own parliamentarians wanted to ditch him but were overruled by the party's wider membership. May duly started with an immense lead. Over the succeeding weeks, Corbyn's shambles of a Labour Party came much of the way back.

Why? Bizarrely, Brexit has almost nothing to do with it. Labour isn't challenging the referendum result, partly because so many of its own supporters want out of the European Union; and its position on how to manage Brexit is as vague as the Tories'.

Labour's remarkable traction during the campaign also wasn't because Corbyn came up with a compelling election manifesto and sold it pretty well. Quite the opposite: Content and marketing were fully as bad as the Tories could have wished. Nationalize this, nationalize that, make higher education free, pour resources into every kind of public service, and no we aren't quite sure what all of this will cost.

As this farcical program was set before voters, the Tories should have increased their lead, not seen it dwindle. May is the reason this didn't happen. And sadly for the U.K., her failure wasn't an error of strategy -- errors of strategy can be put right -- so much as plain political incompetence.

With Labour marching briskly hard-left, May tried to follow the example of her predecessor, David Cameron, and move the Conservatives further to the middle of British politics. A pro-market, pro-capitalist party can strengthen its appeal by addressing rising inequality and economic insecurity. There's no contradiction in that: Purblind statism isn't the only way to confront those issues.

But instead of championing a solidly pro-market centrism, May adopted a semi-skimmed leftism heavy on industrial-policy meddling and other piecemeal dirigisme. That went down badly not because voters are opposed to piecemeal dirigisme -- many quite like it -- but because it forced her to be vague and non-committal while standing in front of posters saying "Strong and Stable Leadership." Her refusal to debate head-to-head with Corbyn didn't look all that strong either.

Her single biggest mistake was to announce and then immediately take back a plan to make old people with assets pay more toward their care at the end of their lives. Again, please note, the idea wasn't wrong in principle. Households of modest means shouldn't have to pay higher taxes so that large inheritances can pass to the heirs of the well-situated. But May had no right to be surprised by the hostile reaction -- such policies are always unpopular. Worst of all was her decision to retreat, deny and dither in response. Strong and stable, my foot.

Despite everything, polls in the closing days of the campaign have shown the Tories ahead. For this, give Corbyn the credit. Thanks to him, May is still likely to be prime minister next week, perhaps with an enlarged majority. But at a time when the country needs clarity and strength of conviction above all -- in other words, a steady leader and an artful negotiator -- it has discovered just how far short of that May is likely to fall.     

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.