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19 June 2017

Why bad news for the Conservatives is good news for Theresa May

The worse things get, the more and more unattractive her job becomes. 

By Stephen Bush

It’s fair to say that Theresa May’s first week since being re-elected – after a fashion – has not been a great one. Criticised for her hesitant response to the Grenfell Tower fire, with even the friendly papers now discussing at length who will replace her and when, her misery has been compounded by a set of figures showing Labour continuing to climb in the polls, and Jeremy Corbyn overtaking her in the popularity stakes.

Her own rating is now lower than Jeremy Corbyn’s, and as for the Labour leader, his approval rating has reached a net zero for the first time, making him the most popular UK-wide politician in the country. (Intriguingly, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, are all more popular than any nationwide political figure.)

To make matters worse, inflation is up, increasing the downward pressure on wages. No government has ever gained seats when it has gone to the country when wages are falling. The Conservatives believed they would break that cycle on 8 June but instead they fell prey to it. Put simply, until the economy improves, they will be looking to their next brush with the electorate with deep unease.

And then there’s Corbyn. Not only is he feeling the benefit of a party that is now more or less entirely united behind him, but he is continuing to act as if the election campaign is in full swing. A visitor from another planet, switching on the television, would think that Corbyn was already Prime Minister. It’s Corbyn, not May, who is being photographed and filmed looking statesmanlike at Grenfell Tower and Finsbury Park mosque.

Although the leader’s office privately expects that the Conservatives will regain their poll lead once May strikes her deal with the Democratic Unionist Party and is able to get back on the front foot, the credit they are accruing now may prove impossible for the Conservatives to claw back.

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That’s obviously bad news for the Tories. But it’s good news for Theresa May, at least as far as her hope of clinging on long enough to leave a legacy other than transforming a double-digit advantage over Labour into a hung parliament. Why?

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Well, bluntly for the same reason no one held a mutiny after the Titanic hit the iceberg. No one wants to go down as the captain who sank the ship, and the more holed below the waterline the good ship HMS Conservative looks, the less attractive the top job looks. 

What I’m hearing more and more from Conservative MPs is that it is best for May to act as “the sin-eater” in the words of one, to absorb as much flak and dislike as possible, while the party quietly U-turns on its fiscal plans, resolves the Brexit issue and is able to go into the next election in four years with a fresh face and a clean slate. (The expectation among both Labour and Conservative MPs is that while the DUP will strike a hard bargain, they will ultimately agree to keep May in office for the foreseeable future.)

Of course, May’s position is so fragile that anything – a gaffe, an unpopular announcement, a particularly bad set of polls, anything – could upend that calculation. Mutiny aboard the Titanic might become a much more attractive prospect than it currently seems very quickly.

But despite everything, for May, at least, bad news is good news.