Back in April, when Theresa May made her now ill-fated decision to host a snap general election, she argued that doing so would “guarantee certainty and security for years”.
Indeed, from the very start of her election campaign, the Prime Minister attempted to assume a mantle of stability. She was the safe choice. A vote for her party was a vote for continuity. Her mistake was assuming this was what the electorate wanted.
May should have seen the warning signings. The event that initiated her rise to power, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, highlighted a nation that was desperate for change. Quite what that change is, or what it will entail, remains uncertain, and yet the message was rather evident all the same. The UK wasn’t looking for continuity. It was willing to vote Conservative as it did in 2015, but it had embraced a Conservative Party which promised a vote on the issue of the EU, and upon May’s ascension to leadership, it embraced one which was committed to leaving the European Union.
The Prime Minister’s mistake was in trying to play a risk-averse campaign in an election that was inherently risky. Of course, back in April when the Conservative party were over 20% ahead of Labour in the polls, the risk seemed minimal, but it was existent all the same. While Corbyn’s leadership had largely been ailing, a campaign was always going to give him a certain focus he had perhaps lacked before, and an excuse for the Labour party to unite, even if only briefly. Additionally, May should have been aware that any major scandal, any sudden, unexpected revelation, would have the potential to swing the public’s perception of each party.
Theresa May consistently tried to argue that voting for Jeremy Corbyn would result in a ‘coalition of chaos’, and the Conservatives made an effort to highlight his supposed links with the IRA. There was a fundamental problem in this approach, though. If the Prime Minister was so insistent that a victory for Corbyn’s Labour would result in ‘chaos’, then why was she even allowing the possibility? From the moment she stepped into office last year, Theresa May had a rather definitive way in which she could ensure it was her party who would lead the country until at least 2020: not calling an election.
Nevertheless, if May was intent upon calling the election, believing her narrow Commons majority was not sufficient as she headed into Brexit negotiations, then she should have purported a bolder campaign. She should have been aware of the atmosphere of change and uncertainty which lingered after last year’s Brexit vote. She should have sought to take advantage of it, presenting herself as a bold and ambitious leader. Instead the Prime Minister was tentative and hesitant. She refused to debate her opponents directly. She was forced to defend – or deny – U-turns in policy in front of the media. This highlighted another contradiction within her campaign. The Prime Minister was trying to portray herself as a figure of certainty, when instead her manifesto seemed to create a sense of confusion and distrust.
The Prime Minister’s campaign did not even necessarily need to be one that was particularly aggressive or nasty. It could have even been one in which she tried to portray herself as a figure of unity - as someone who had backed a Remain vote before the referendum, but was now passionately determined to enact the will of the British electorate.
This was largely the approach Corbyn took. He made no suggestions that he would overturn the result from last June’s vote, and yet still attempted to take the now largely pro-Brexit Tory government to task. There were criticisms from several corners that his manifesto was not credible or something that could realistically be implemented, yet Corbyn defended it with an admirable passion. On Question Time, when one voter almost sarcastically asked whether the Labour manifesto was merely a wish-list to Santa Claus, Corbyn seemed unperturbed. He labelled his manifesto a serious document, and the conviction with which he did so was a far-cry from May’s hesitant claims that nothing had changed in her own as the media scrutinised her.
As a result, Corbyn became the candidate of genuine change. His offer was an altogether different one to the promise of Brexit, and yet there were similarities, however small they may have been. Just as the Brexit campaign promised to 'bring back control' to Britain, so too did Corbyn try to paint a vision in which the average voter would be rewarded. His pledge to work ‘for the many, not the few’ was inherently positive and empowering.
May, unsatisfied with her majority government, went into the election with an arrogant assumption that the voters would unquestioningly stand by her party. Or, at least, the assumption that enough of them would do so to ensure a Conservative majority.
Now, as Theresa May faces calls to resign and finds herself forced into a deal with the DUP, she will be pining for her slim majority, and lamenting what was a complete miscalculation of the general atmosphere among the electorate.
More articles by this commentator