After an extraordinary election campaign, the United Kingdom holds a landmark poll today. Since the snap ballot was called in April, polls have oscillated wildly with the opposition Labour Party making significant ground on the Conservatives which had previously held a commanding 20% lead.
Advance polls offer a confused picture on the state of play with some indicating that the race may be neck and neck, while others point to a single digit or low double digit Conservative lead. With a range of potential outcomes now possible much will depend on turnout, especially amongst younger voters who tend to support Labour in larger numbers.
Part of the reason why Conservatives have lost ground during the campaign is perceptions of the performance of the party leader and Prime Minister Theresa May. According to Ipsos Mori, her approval rating has fallen off a cliff to just over 40%. This is now around the same level as Corbyn whose own ratings have improved significantly in the last few weeks.
May had made her self-ascribed “strong and stable” leadership a central element of the campaign. Yet, this has backfired, especially given her unwillingness to debate directly with other leaders – including a head-to-head with Corbyn – which has generally played badly with the electorate.
May’s personal polling slump partially reflects the fact that she had never before led a general election campaign. Her lack of such experience has shone through and she has appeared rattled on numerous occasions. She has also made multiple tactical mistakes and U-turns, including becoming the first party leader in modern UK political history to abandon a key manifesto pledge – over social care costs – before election day.
By contrast, the performance of Corbyn has exceeded most expectations. His learning curve as party leader in a largely hostile UK media environment over much of the last two years has been steep, and the experience and confidence he has assumed has generally shown in what has been a potentially tricky campaign for him too.
It has not just been the change in perceptions of May that has been extraordinary. Another unprecedented feature of the campaign has been its suspension – twice – by major terrorist attacks. On Sunday, national-level campaigning was stopped by Conservatives and Labour following the London terrorist atrocities, and national electioneering was also suspended last month for around three days after the Manchester suicide bomb attack.
To date, polls indicate that these horrific events will not have a significant bearing on Thursday’s result. That said, the full impact of the London attacks is yet to unfold and a late change in sentiment cannot be completely discounted.
A third extraordinary theme of the campaign is the ‘missing debate’ over Brexit, despite the fact that May called the unexpected election to bring this issue centre stage. May called the snap poll by declaring that she was not prepared to allow opposition parties to hold her hard Brexit stance to ransom. Her ambition had therefore been to try to win a massive majority to bolster her authority and negotiating hand with EU should she re-emerge as prime minister.
However her position has been weakened, rather than strengthened, by the campaign given changed perceptions of her leadership. Another indication of the lower than anticipated prominence of Brexit is the apparent failure of the Liberal Democrats – to date – to make any headway. The party has sought to try to position itself as the voice of ‘Remain’ voters from last year’s EU referendum.
This stance has given the party clearer differentiation against all the main UK parties, and led it in December to win a by-election victory in Richmond Park in London when Brexit was the defining issue. However, this stance has not led to any obvious overwhelming benefits this general election.
That Brexit has not featured more prominently in the campaign means that many key questions remain unanswered about UK’s forthcoming negotiating strategy with EU. Moreover, even if May re-emerges as PM, she will probably not have won the national consensus she had hoped for around her Brexit stance.
This is important because – a year after last year’s referendum – there still is not a consensus across the nation behind any specific version of Brexit, whether hard or soft, disorderly or orderly. Indeed, continuing divisions within the electorate on these issues (perhaps as big as on the basic merits of last June’s referendum decision itself) are still underlined in polls which tend to show the country broadly split over whether maintaining access to the European single market, or being able to limit migration, should be the key objective in negotiations.
This had been the key question that May had wanted to try to see resolved in the election. Even if she wins a majority now, it will probably not be the massive one she had hoped for, and it will therefore be harder for her to say she has the backing of the country behind her hard Brexit position.
Taken overall, May’s gamble in calling the election is now looking less shrewd than it first appeared in April given the softening in Conservative support. While polls indicate she is still the favourite to win today, her public standing has been diminished by the campaign and the national consensus she wants on Brexit may well prove elusive.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.