Six weeks, or even a few days is a long time in politics. Theresa May, who looked oh-so-clever to have called this week’s snap elections, is now looking too clever by half. She’s managed to turn what was expected to be the opportunity to crush Labour, perhaps permanently, into display of miscalculations and personal failings: refusing to say anything new on Brexit, her supposed selling point, and an astonishingly poorly run campaign, evoking comparisons to Clinton. And to top things off, the supposedly utterly incompetent Jeremy Corbyn has metamorphosed into an effective and even likable candidate. From Foreign Policy:
May has asked voters to trust her judgment on Brexit issues without being prepared to divulge any details. Her election strategy has resembled a religious demand more than an intellectual proposition. Nearly a year on, Brexit remains an absence wrapped in a mystery….
The release of a party manifesto in British politics is a crucial moment in the election cycle….The release of the Tory manifesto this year was a disaster. It included a proposal for a new social care policy designed to put help for the elderly on a more sustainable level. People requiring care at the end of their life would pay for it with their assets after their death, up to their last $129,000. The irony is that this policy is not altogether unreasonable — it taxed those who could afford to pay to help share the burden of an elderly population. But it was translated, in tabloid-speak, as a “dementia tax” — a state effort to stop you from passing your home on to your children if you were unlucky enough to get a debilitating and drawn-out illness. It was of particular concern to the over 65s, who happen to be the group that most reliably votes Tory.
The reaction was instant and entirely predictable. The press hated it. Tory voters hated it. Tory MPs hated it. What was most telling, however, was how surprised May seemed to be about all this hate. Even the most cursory stress-testing of the policy would have established that this response was likely. But one thing we’ve learned about May since she’s become leader is that she has an obsession with control… The result was this manifesto, the product of a team deciding on policies with too little scrutiny, tucked away and insulated from criticism.
Within days there was a U-turn, with the promise of a cap on the amount that would be paid. It was an extraordinary climb-down — possibly the first time a party had reversed a policy before it had been put to voters in an election. Even the U-turn itself was handled badly. May took to the stage at a ferocious news conference and insisted repeatedly that “nothing has changed,” which was plainly nonsense and caused journalists to hound her for days.
Even with May looking wounded and hounded since this fiasco and Labour making unprecedented gains over the campaign time frame, most pollsters remain confident that not only with the Tories win, but will even gain 20 to 30 seats. How can this be?
First, it is still possible that the Conservatives could fail to secure a majority and would continue with an unstable minority government. The wild card in the polls, which historically have understate Tory performance, is turnout among the young. Older voters are reliable voters and also skew strongly Conservative. The younger Corbyn fans would need to turn out in much higher than usual levels to turn the tide Labour’s way. YouGov, which is forecasting that this election will depart from traditional norms, shows in its latest poll that the Tories fail to cinch a majority, securing only 308 seats, down from their current 330. That’s with a popular vote split of 42% for the Conservatives, 38% for Labour. A fresh poll for the Mail for Sunday by Survation shows an even more remarkable outcome, Tories at 40% v. Labour at 39%.
But the Independent points out other polls taken at the same time show very different results. ComRes has the Conservatives 12 points ahead of Labour, at 47% versus 35%. Opinionium has the Conservatives with a 6 point lead, 43% versus 37%. Express.
Second, on top of the big divergence in the popular vote is that what matters as well is the distribution. The Financial Times contends that Labour’s strong showing will not translate into commensurate results in seats, since it is doing well in London and cities like Manchester, but is expecting to lose ground in the Midlands and North:
Despite the narrowing of the opinion polls, Labour is still braced for significant losses in the Midlands and northern England, according to a survey of candidates….
On Friday a poll by Ipsos MORI showed the Conservative lead shrinking from 15 points to five points in just two weeks: at 45 per cent to 40 per cent.
By comparison, Ed Miliband — who led Labour to defeat in 2015 — was ahead in some polls in the run-up to the last general election.
Ben Page, chief executive of the polling organisation, said that the national picture was less important than the minority of seats which had a chance of changing hands. In 2015, for example, only 17 per cent of seats got a new MP.
“It’s all about those 100 or so seats which could change hands, it doesn’t matter how the Tories do in Chelsea or Labour does in South Shields,” he said.
During this election campaign few if any marginal seats have been polled. It will be in places such as Great Grimsby, Mansfield, Halifax and Middlesbrough South that the contest will be decided.
“If the Tories are 15 points ahead in marginals then it’s game over, even if the parties are close at a national level. Sir Lynton Crosby [the Tory campaign chief] could be sat in a cinema relaxing at the moment for all we know,” said Mr Page.
The Express, after featuring the YouGov poll predicting a hung Parliament, gives a round-up of more Tory-favorable polls. Electoral Calculus anticipates the Conservatives gaining 32 seats, for a total of 362 (this comes about in part by predicting that UKIP gets nearly 13% of the vote, a real outlier). Britain Elects Nowcastputs the Tory wins at 362 seats. New Statesman pegs the Conservatives at 350 seats and Lord Aschcroft, 306 seats.
All these polls took place before the terrorist attacks in London. While they would normally play to the Conservatives’ advantage, May seems to have muffed it yet again. As Politico’s daily e-mail points out:
May has been dealing with terrorism in her ministerial roles and as a senior cabinet member for seven years in government. She may argue “enough is enough,” but she can’t wash her hands of how the U.K. got here. Secondly, the premise of May’s struggling campaign is “strong and stable” government. Three deadly terror attacks in three months are many things; stable isn’t one of them.
And from UserFriendly:
MUST WATCH: Wow. You know the Police have had enough when they accuse Theresa May of outright lies. Cuts have made us all less safe. pic.twitter.com/D4Fe44swpI
— EL4C (@EL4JC) June 4, 2017
Regardless how thing turn out this Thursday, keep in mind:
Corbyn has established himself as the leader of a vital Labour party and showed that the days of Third Way head-fakery are past. Before Corbyn was fighting for survival against the Blairites. He will still face many rearguard battles in rousting them out, but where the future of the party lies is now clear.
Winning this election is a poisoned chalice. The victor will be saddled with Brexit. As a cynical reader pointed out, women get the nod to become CEOs only when a company is in trouble and the same appears true for the UK. May, like many women who have long sought executive roles and get them under bad circumstances, appears to have convinced herself that she’s up to the task when she isn’t. We’ve given many examples of how enormous a project Brexit is, and how the Government appears to have no clue as to what is required. Its performance on this front manages to make Trump look good, for those who aren’t blinded by the constant cheerleading of British press barons. We’ve pointed out how deadly a few basic facts are, such as, the UK by treaty cannot negotiate any new trade deals until it has departed the EU, and that trade deals (save ones with the US, which are dictated, not negotiated) take years (as in typically 5+) to conclude and be ratified. And there is no “default to the WTO,” as the media too often misleadlingly reports. A deal with the WTO will have to be negotiated, and the WTO has already made clear that the UK will not jump ahead of countries that are already in its pipeline.
If that sort of thing hasn’t persuaded you, perhaps these extracts from a recent Financial Times story, After Brexit: the UK will need to renegotiate at least 759 treaties, will:
While Brexit is often cast as an affair between Brussels and London, in practice Britain’s exit will open more than 750 separate time-pressured mini-negotiations worldwide, according to Financial Times research. And there are no obvious shortcuts: even a basic transition after 2019 requires not just EU-UK approval, but the deal-by-deal authorisation of every third country involved.
“The nearest precedent you can think of is a cessation of a country — you are almost starting from scratch,” says Andrew Hood, a former UK government lawyer now at Dechert. “It will be a very difficult, iterative process.”…
Each agreement must be reviewed, the country approached, the decision makers found, meetings arranged, trips made, negotiations started and completed — all against a ticking clock and the backdrop of Brexit, with the legal and practical constraints that brings. Most inconvenient of all, many countries want to know the outcome of EU-UK talks before making their own commitments….
At its most granular level, the sheer administrative scale of the “third country” question is striking. Through analysis of the EU treaty database, the FT found 759 separate EU bilateral agreements with potential relevance to Britain, covering trade in nuclear goods, customs, fisheries, trade, transport and regulatory co-operation in areas such as antitrust or financial services.
Some of the 759 are so essential that it would be unthinkable to operate without them. Air services agreements allow British aeroplanes to land in America, Canada or Israel; nuclear accords permit the trade in spare parts and fuel for Britain’s power stations. Both these sectors are excluded from trade negotiations and must be addressed separately….
“The logistics are terrifying, even just to go through these commitments and treaties and scope them out,” says Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, a former trade official for Sweden and the EU now at the European Centre for International Political Economy. “Do you want revisions? Do they? Do you go there? How many visits to Chile will this take? That’s a massive logistical operation in itself.
“There will be a lot of countries with a beef with the EU or the UK and will see this as a golden opportunity to bring up a nuisance issue. They might not get anything, but they have to try,” he adds. “There will probably be an accident in areas you cannot predict.”
In other words, if Labour were to be able to put together a coalition, Corbyn too would find Brexit dominating his agenda, particularly since a falling pound and resulting inflation would constrain his ability to deficit spend. While it is true, as one Guardian source put it, that “If 50% of the Labour manifesto were implemented, it would be better than 100% of the Tory one,” it would be heroic for Corbyn to get as much as 50% done given the situation he is inheriting. His most important focus will hopefully be to strengthen the NHS.
One of May’s motives for the snap election may have been to increase her room for maneuver on Brexit. As commentators have noted, her tight-lippedness on Brexit isn’t just peculiar, it’s perverse given its supposed position in her case to voters. But there may have been method in that madness, in that she didn’t want to commit herself to a Brexit program because she wants to change course a bit, or perhaps even quite a bit.
Given the confidence the Tories has six weeks ago that the vote would be a rout for Labour, one of the advantages of a commanding win would have been both that May would have her own mandate and not be hobbled by a thin majority. One school of though it that the reason the Government has given so few details about its Brexit plans isn’t that it is incompetent or deluded about what Brexit entails, but that May intends to engineer a soft Brexit and she’s using a Trumpian “pacing” strategy. From Scott Adams:
Trump always takes the extreme position on matters of safety and security for the country, even if those positions are unconstitutional, impractical, evil, or something that the military would refuse to do. Normal people see this as a dangerous situation. Trained persuaders like me see this as something called pacing and leading. Trump “paces” the public – meaning he matches them in their emotional state, and then some. He does that with his extreme responses on immigration, fighting ISIS, stop-and-frisk, etc. Once Trump has established himself as the biggest bad-ass on the topic, he is free to “lead,” which we see him do by softening his deportation stand, limiting his stop-and-frisk comment to Chicago, reversing his first answer on penalties for abortion, and so on.
I’s be curious to get reader input as to whether the most favorable Tory outcome now predicted, 362 seats, would give May enough wriggle room to change tactics on Brexit, assuming she does want to do that.
A hung Parliament would make governing difficult, and be a major impediment to moving ahead with Brexit. How can a government which will probably be out in two years or less, based on historical precedents, make commitments of this magnitude? This is over my pay grade, and I suspect that UK politicians and pundits won’t have good answers either.
This race has proved to be a more gripping affair than anyone expected. And if May comes out the loser from her gambit, she will have only herself to blame.