/ 8 June 2017

As UK goes to polls, May’s gamble on calling a snap election looks increasingly risky

(Carl Court/Getty Images)
(Carl Court/Getty Images)

The United Kingdom goes to the polls today in a landmark election after an extraordinary election campaign. Since the snap ballot was called in April, polls have oscillated wildly, with the opposition Labour Party making substantial ground on the Conservatives, which had previously held a commanding 20 percentage point lead.

In advance of the election, polls offered a confused picture on the state of play, with a number indicating that the race may be neck and neck and others pointing to a single-digit or low double-digit Conservative lead.

With a range of potential outcomes now possible, much will depend on turnout, especially among younger voters who tend to support Labour in larger numbers.

One reason the Conservatives have lost ground during the campaign is perceptions of the performance of 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 at about the same level as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose own ratings have improved in the past few weeks.

May 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 has 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 past 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 both the Conservatives and Labour after the London terror atrocities, and national electioneering was also suspended last month for about 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 snap election to bring this issue centre stage. To be sure, the subject of the UK’s exit from the European Union remains salient with many voters, but it has not dominated discussion over the past few weeks in the way some anticipated.

In April, 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 has therefore been to try to win a big majority to bolster her authority and negotiating hand with the EU should she re-emerge as prime minister. But her position has been weakened, rather than strengthened, by the campaign, given the changed perceptions of her leadership in the eyes of many voters.

Another indication of the lower than anticipated prominence of Brexit in the campaign discussion is the apparent failure of the Liberal Democrats — to date — to make any headway. The party has sought 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 against the Conservatives when Brexit was the defining issue. So far this stance has not led to any obvious overwhelming electoral benefits, in the absence of a late surge for the party that polling has yet to pick up.

The fact that Brexit has not featured more prominently in the campaign means many key questions remain unanswered about the UK’s forthcoming negotiating strategy with the EU. Moreover, even if May re-emerges as prime minister, she will probably not have won the national consensus she was hoping for on her Brexit stance.

This is important because, a year after last year’s referendum, there still is no consensus across the nation behind any specific version of Brexit, whether hard or soft, disorderly or orderly.

The continuing divisions among the electorate on these issues (perhaps as big as on the merits of last June’s referendum decision itself) are still underlined in polls that tend to show the country broadly split over whether the key objective in negotiations should be to maintain access to the European single market or to be able to limit migration.

This was the key question May wanted to see resolved in the election. Even if she wins a majority now, it will probably not be as big as she would like and it will therefore be harder to say she has the backing of the country behind her hard Brexit position.

May’s gamble in calling the election is now looking less shrewd than it first appeared in April, given the softening in support for the Conservatives. Despite polls indicating she is still the favourite to win, her public standing has been diminished by the campaign.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics