Thursday’s U.K. election may prove to be a self-inflicted blow, and perhaps a fatal one, for Prime Minister Theresa May. She called for the election in April, hoping to consolidate her power, increase the Conservative majority, and exploit the perceived weakness of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Tories’ 17-point polling lead in April suggested they would widen their 12-seat majority in Parliament by as many as 70 seats. May could be excused for not fearing Corbyn, since his loudest critics have been the Blairites in his own party and the center-left press.
But the last six weeks have been cruel to May and the Tories. The Labour Party’s manifesto was received warmly, and the sense that Corbyn was an aloof and eccentric relic of the stagnant 1970s gave way to the notion that the actual Corbyn was the only politician poised to reverse the austerity regime in place since 2010 and restore and reinforce what was best about the British welfare state. Then there was the Tories’ so-called dementia tax: a proposal that homeowners who receive state-provided care at home pay for it after their deaths, when the state could claim the value of their homes in excess of £100,000. Arguably, this is among the more progressive aspects of the Conservatives austerity measures, but the British don’t respond well to tampering with their grandparents or their real-estate piggy banks. The grandparents themselves aren’t happy either; the so-called “gray vote” went from a solid Conservative block to a virtual split.
Labour has seen its support spike overall: Most polls now give the Conservatives a single-digit lead while some show a dead heat. How this translates into parliamentary numbers and what sort of government those might yield are tricky questions. A YouGov model released on Monday shows the Tories falling short of a majority by as many as 21 seats. That would mean a hung parliament and the possibility that Corbyn, not May, could be the one to form a governing coalition in partnership with the Scottish National Party, which owed its 50-seat surge in the 2015 election to mass defections of Labour voters after the SNP’s narrow loss in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. The Tories’ logical partners in a coalition would be the Liberal Democrats and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, who currently hold nine and eight seats, respectively. But the Lib Dems are still suffering from the backlash against their previous coalition with the Conservatives, which cost them 49 seats in 2015, and Labour’s rise seems to be sapping their support. At this point, given all the campaign tumult, which scenario is the most likely is impossible to say.
And that uncertainty, along with the fact that in the wake of Brexit the two major parties are plagued by internal strife, has made this the most anxiety-inducing election in recent memory. The last few episodes in U.K. politics suggest that the polls can’t be trusted and prediction is useless. Most signs pointed to another hung parliament in 2015. Unlike the United States, the U.K. prohibits the broadcast of partial results or exit polls until after polls have closed on election night. I was in London in May 2015, and there were gasps in the room where I was watching the BBC’s election coverage when the first results finally came onscreen and the Tories were leading comfortably. The pundits and the betting markets had both failed. It seemed to many observers a repeat of 1992, the year of the “Shy Tory Factor” when the polls drastically underestimated John Major. The 2016 Brexit referendum shocked both liberal London and Prime Minister David Cameron, who had bet his administration on giving the Europhobes to his right the chance to vent at the polls and then defeating them. It turned out that the raw advantage was with the aging and xenophobic.
One would expect this spring’s terror attacks — three of them since March 22, in Westminster, Manchester, and South London — to lead to a right-wing bounce. May, after all, was Home Secretary under Cameron and her calling card before she succeeded him was her yearning for increased powers of state surveillance. But she also led the way in police cuts. There are now 46,700 fewer police officers in England and Wales than there were in 2010, including a reduction of more than 1,000 fewer officers authorized to use firearms in London. This isn’t a typical talking point for the left, but Corbyn and his allies in the media like Guardian columnist Owen Jones were exploiting it on Monday morning. Corbyn went so far as to call on May to resign.
The most significant difference between Thursday’s election and the 2015 race is the contrast between the Tory and Labour leaders. Like Cameron, May is a post-Thatcher center-right technocrat committed to austerity policies, privatization, and the security state while making enough concessions to the Brexiters to her right to keep them tame. Cameron underestimated them, but May has promised a “hard Brexit,” even though she was tepidly pro-Remain before last year’s referendum. Unlike the previous Labour leader, Ed Miliband, Corbyn isn’t a post-Blair technocrat bound to the slightly softer form of Thatcherism that’s defined the party since the late 1990s. He offers a real break from both the near-term status quo and the last 38 years of U.K. governance.
Corbyn entered Parliament as the MP for Islington North, a very liberal London district, in 1983, with a background working for trade unions. It was an alteration to the party’s leadership selection process designed by the party’s Blairite wing to weaken trade unions by opening the voting to all party members that backfired and led to his election as Labour leader in September 2015. A populist campaign and effective online recruiting of new party members gave him a 59.5 percent landslide win in the first round of voting. Like Bernie Sanders, but even more despised by the centrists in his own party, he’s a throwback to an earlier incarnation of left politics. His modest personal style extends to cycling (he doesn’t own a car) and his hobby of drain-spotting (he photographs manhole covers for fun). In addition to reversing austerity cuts, he favors renationalizing Britain’s privatized utilities. His most startling departure from the centrist consensus is on the matter of the U.K.’s nuclear weapons. He was heckled at a debate for refusing to endorse the hypothetical idea of launching a defensive first strike against a country like North Korea. A tape released over the weekend has him calling the idea “bonkers.” Strange how the conventional wisdom holds that a willingness to commit preemptive mass murder is a prerequisite for higher office.
By Monday May had reframed the weekend’s terror attack as an assault on the “free world,” with the implication that multicultural London — the victims were of many nationalities — is its true capital and she’s the only candidate fit to lead it. She’s in a hard place, having cozied up to Donald Trump in the first weeks of his presidency — Trump isn’t a popular figure in Britain, and his weird Twitter snipes at London Mayor Sadiq Khan don’t play well across the Atlantic. On Brexit, she’s resorted to macho rhetoric to attack Corbyn, saying he’d be going into Brexit negotiations “naked and alone.” After Brexit, and given the current occupant of the White House, that might be a better description of Britain itself.