Theresa May’s snap election which she had previously promised would not happen may now be one she wishes she had not called.
• May has been losing her large initial lead as Corbyn rapidly gains ground
• A series of policy blunders and refusal to debate with other leaders caused damage
• Terror attacks have changed agenda and put her previous record under scrutiny
Terror sets agenda
Until last Sunday the UK’s surprise election was providing just one other big surprise, which was the rapidly improving poll figures for the Labour party and its supposed no-hoper leader Jeremy Corbyn in parallel with the stuttering performance and disappearing lead of current prime minister Theresa May’s Conservative party.
But the terrorist killings in London late on Saturday night have changed this election and perhaps its likely outcome. For all the horror of the Manchester attack a couple of weeks previously, another one coming so shortly afterwards has made terrorism the issue from now until polling day. The cumulative effect of three attacks in three months made this a certainty.
An election which was supposedly about establishing a strong position from which to negotiate Brexit has become an election about more immediate and pressing problems, although concerns about pan-European co-operation on security issues are bound to be raised at a later date by anti-Brexit campaigners.
Policing cuts an uncomfortable legacy
Mrs May, as the incumbent, naturally has the opportunity and of course an obligation to show the sort of calm and considered leadership a country needs in times of crisis. And while she must be careful not to be seen to use her reaction to these attacks as part of the electoral campaign, she will of course need to promise tough action and a renewed focus on fighting terrorism.
So far her previous record as home secretary, which carries with it responsibility for domestic security issues, has left her open to attack and accusations that cuts to police numbers during her seven year period in the job have had a lasting impact on security. While she can rightly point out that the anti-terrorism budget has been maintained, there is a common sense argument for many voters that less police officers on the ground mean things get missed. The conduit from street corner conversation with the local police officer to anti-terror specialist has inevitably been narrowed.
Corbyn and the Labour party have been pursuing her relentlessly on this point and so far she appears vulnerable. Her possible saviour could be Mr Corbyn himself and his own difficult record on terrorism, terrorists and what to do about them. Having started with a huge lead she is now left hoping to be elected as the lesser of two evils choice for many voters.
Jeremy Corbyn carries with him an unfortunate history of speaking to terrorists, and balancing on the tightrope between seeking to understand arguments and excusing actions. While it is of course true that governments have to speak to their enemies, to people they despise and who have inflicted death and destruction on their populations, it should be a moral obligation for democrats not to excuse or appear to condone terrorism.
Some of his comments, such as the oft quoted comment about “our friends in Hamas and our friends in Hezbollah” have come back to haunt him and leave a cloud of suspicion about his real beliefs hanging over him. In the past even people in his own party have felt he crossed the line and now, just as he was reaching heights not predicted by any political commentators, this could inflict renewed damage at a crucial time.
In these difficult times even the faintest scent of weakness, of appeasement and of backing down in the face of terror, could be fatal. Corbyn’s recent statements have made all the right noises but his unfortunate back catalogue of comments is “out there” in the public domain, and will no doubt find its way into discussions this week. It might not be directly mentioned by the Conservatives or other parties but their supporters in the press, having already raised these issues, will no doubt not be able to resist some subtle or not so subtle finger pointing.
Having got tangled up in a slightly farcical dispute about using the nuclear deterrent, during a recent TV debate with a live audience, he failed to confirm that he would push the button if he had to. In a surprising illustration of political naivety, he tried to skirt around the question with some worthy waffle about peace, love and understanding. All fine sentiments but not really appropriate in front of a live and somewhat bloodthirsty audience, whose button-pushing element had scented blood in the water and would not let go. An easy side-step would have been the argument that all options would be on the table and would be considered appropriately at the time. Instead we got the impression of a committed pacifist, cornered but not coming clean.
Security the issue as polls suggest close fight
For the next couple of days the expected headline grabbing issues of Brexit, care of the elderly, the health service and changes to pensions are likely to be ignored, as the battle on who can be trusted to fight terrorism continues at full throttle.
Opinion polls before the most recent attack had indicated increasing numbers of voters turning to Labour, with some polls putting the gap at just a couple of percentage points. Yesterday’s YouGov poll had the Conservatives on 42% and Labour on 38% but, based on their predictions, this will translate into 304 seats (members of parliament) for the Conservatives and only 266 for Labour.
Survation also has both of the major parties very close in their latest poll, which demonstrates Labour’s growing support and the Conservatives’ large losses over the campaign period.
Theresa May’s thoughts might be turning to the fate of her predecessor David Cameron as election day looms in the UK. His career was ended by a referendum he did not have to have but expected to win. If the polls are correct, and this is a very big if indeed given recent polling history in the UK, she may be heading dangerously close to the same fate in an election she did not need to have. Although it is hard to believe this will happen, despite the polls, if it does she will no doubt reflect that her opportunism and poor judgement have been her downfall.
Her argument was that she needed a strong mandate from the electorate to take into the imminent Brexit negotiations. Nobody on the other side of the table in Brussels will care about the size of her majority, as she well knows, so we can only assume that she looked at the polls before calling the election and found Corbyn’s supposed weakness and unpopularity too tempting an opportunity to miss. Should it all go wrong tomorrow, she will be the second Conservative leader in a row to have unnecessarily ended her own career.
Prior to Brexit and the coming of Trump this would have been an unexpected outcome nobody was expecting but in the new age of alternative facts and alternative results we naturally expect the unexpected. A Corbyn win would complete the holy trinity of political upsets and confirm that polls, political certainties and predicting the future really are things of the past.