It has now been around a month since Theresa May surprised everyone by announcing her smash-and-grab election. Even a few hours can be a long time in politics, so a whole month in the middle of a general election campaign is more like an entire geological era.
When the PM called the election, we were still inhabiting the Paleozoic era of the May honeymoon, characterised by strong, stable poll ratings for the Tories and weak, wobbly ones for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour. Back then, the thinking among most Labour MPs was that they were facing a Tory landslide of epic proportions. Therefore, when crafting their messages for the electorate there was no point wasting ink and vocal chords on trying to reassure voters about the prospect of a Corbyn government, since the real issue at stake was the size of May’s impending majority and the continuing existence of the Labour Party as a vehicle for an alternative, progressive government in the future.
Only one Labour MP (John Woodcock) explicitly stated that he would not vote to make Corbyn Prime Minister if he was re-elected by his constituents. Somehow, Woodcock managed to make it onto the ballot paper as the official Labour candidate in Barrow and Furness in spite of this. At this point, it looked like Labour couldn’t even win the election if it promised free orgasms on the NHS. That was the paleozoic era.
Since then, we have entered the Mesozoic era. This era is characterised by the wheels falling off the Tory campaign almost completely. What seems to have happened is a complacent assumption by Theresa May that if she was light years ahead in the polls and up against an opponent as electorally impotent as Corbyn appeared to be, then she would have the space she needed to prepare the electorate for difficult long-term measures she might have to take after the election, whilst simultaneously not having to promise many juicy-looking spending increases on public services that might bind her hands or force her into breaking manifesto promises later.
The trouble is, no party or leader is so revered by the public that they will be given a blank cheque to do whatever they want in government. Similarly, no party or leader is so reviled that the public will rule out reviling anyone else more than them. Hence, May’s social care mess and lack of assuredness under the increased scrutiny of an election campaign have caused the polls to narrow.
At the time of writing, the average lead is about 9 points, which is up by around 2.5 since 2015. That, plus indications that the Tories are running a savvier campaign in the marginals and may enjoy a more favourably distributed vote suggests that an increased Tory majority is still one of the most likely outcomes of this election.
But there are caveats, and the caveats have very important implications.
The most obvious caveat is that the polls could continue shifting. They had settled down a little in the last week or so, but Corbyn gave a much more impressive performance than May in his showdown with Jeremy Paxman on Channel 4 and Sky, and some of the most recent polls have shown a further increase in Labour support.
The other caveat is polling methodology. It is often pointed out that any polling error in UK elections has traditionally overestimated Labour support and underestimated the Tories. But the polling companies undertook a review of the 2015 fiasco which wasn’t entirely conclusive as to what caused the error back then. As a result, many of them have changed their methodologies in ways they cannot be sure will give accurate results. That could mean they have overestimated Labour again, but it could also mean they’ve overcorrected and ended up underestimating them instead.
The gap between Labour and the Tories might only need to close by a few points, or turn out to be a few points less than the pollsters tell us it is and we could find ourselves in hung parliament territory. Indeed, one forecast by YouGov on Wednesday already had as its central projection a hung parliament with the SNP and Lib Dems jointly holding the balance of power. If that is a scenario Labour MPs and candidates have prepared for, then (besides John Woodcock) they are not yet telling us about it. As far as I’m aware, they are all either sticking to the line that Corbyn-as-PM is an issue that simply doesn’t arise, or else they’re on the left of the party and happy to actively campaign for a Corbyn government anyway.
That leaves Corbynsceptic Labour voters like myself (and apparently, there are fewer of us in the Mesozoic era) with a dilemma. Actually, make that a trilemma. We could vote for Labour because we like most of what’s in their manifesto and want to ensure their survival, but we might risk a newly strengthened Corbyn hanging on as leader post-election, or even making it as far as Downing Street. We could vote Tory to ensure Corbyn does not reach that address, but may have to throw up outside the polling station afterwards. Or we could vote Lib Dem, reassured by their quiet u-turns on austerity and Trident, and the safety valve they may offer over Brexit. But most of us know they won’t win in our neck of the woods.
At the moment, my guess is that the worst case scenario under a Corbyn government would be a temporary question mark over the effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent, which would end as soon as he ceased to be Prime Minister. The other night, Corbyn told Faisal Islam that he would write the letters of last resort to the commanders of Britain’s four nuclear submarines notifying them of his instructions in the event of his death, and the death of a nominated deputy. But he was not asked to confirm what would be in the letters, and has previously ruled out ever using nuclear weapons. For a few years, that would leave us in the same position as smaller countries that cannot afford nuclear deterrents, and rely on the US, France and others for their security.
This would just about be tolerable since the SDSR (Strategic Defence and Security Review) a Corbyn government would commence upon taking office would be highly unlikely to succeed in disarming us over the long term. Even with a Labour majority, there cannot possibly be the votes Corbyn would need in the Commons for unilateral disarmament. Too many Labour multilateralists were saved from deselection by the timing of this election. Which also means, we would probably hang on to our place on the UN Security Council. In addition to this, it’s highly unlikely Corbyn would have a majority for repealing much of Britain’s counter-terror legislation either, for the same reason.
That leaves me just about in the Labour column at the moment, but for those who are further to the right, more inclined to re-fight the EU Referendum, more concerned about the possible departure of Scotland from the Union, or who just cannot bring themselves to accept the idea of Jeremy Corbyn’s portrait being hung on the wall in Downing Street next to Churchill, Thatcher and Blair, the agony could go on until polling day.
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