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31 December 2017

What I got right, and what I got wrong, about politics in 2017

I live and learn. Well, I live. 

By Stephen Bush

I got Theresa May right

It’s easy to forget now, but at the start of the year, there was a narrative around that Theresa May was a safe pair of hands who wouldn’t do anything risky or politically dangerous.

“Far from being risk-averse, Theresa May is prone to a fight,” I declared in January, adding, “in this case, she’s merely suffered delay, rather than disaster.”

I added: “It may be that far from being undone by caution, it will be her hotblooded streak that brings about the end of Theresa May”. Which, given her decision to call an early election and her conduct of it – largely ran as a series of grudges against members of the Cabinet and the David Cameron approach rather than designed to win over any, actual, y’know, voters – held up pretty well.

…but I didn’t expect her to call an early election

I predicted more times than I care to count that Theresa May wouldn’t go to the country early unless she suffered some unexpected defeat that forced her hand. Even on the morning of the decision itself, I was predicting that she wouldn’t do it.
In a way, the important thing was to predict that May is a politician prone to doing crazy shit that was, sooner or later, gonna come back to bite her, rather than to specifically identify in advance what the crazy shit would be. However, my rationale for why there wouldn’t be an early election has aged particularly badly:

“An early election is in the gift of Parliament not the Prime Minister,” I intoned less than a month before May announced her intention to go the country early, “She needs not just a majority vote but a two-thirds one for a dissolution. It may be that Theresa May has something up her sleeve to convince a) the DUP to vote to give up its position of influence over the government b) enough Conservative backbenchers to vote for irrelevance and c) enough Labour MPs to vote for electoral annihilation. But I’m at a loss as to what exactly that could be.”

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It turned out that the answer to this was simple: “ask for one”. Hindsight is 20:20, but looking back, it is impossible to see how the main opposition party can ever refuse an election if the government wants one.  The idea that Jeremy Corbyn could ever have said anything other than “Alright, come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” once May called for an early contest is obviously stupid now I think about it. And once Labour were on board, the two-thirds majority was locked in.

A useful lesson here is: if you can’t articulate how a politician or party will defend a decision, then it won’t happen. I’m not saying that the rationale has to be sensible, but it does need to exist.

I predicted that the election would not go well for Theresa May

An early election could “damage the PM’s ‘steady-as-she-goes’ brand,” I warned in March.  “Although the polls are with her and the pattern from local and parliamentary by-elections suggests that she will be rewarded with a big majority, there is potential for disaster,” I wrote the afternoon that Theresa May called the election.

“Theresa May will not have a good campaign by any objective standard,” I declared shortly before the contest kicked off properly, “Her interviews will be halting, if she does come into contact with any actual voters they will go badly.”

It was all going well. But then I added: “but it won’t matter”.

…but I didn’t think it would matter

The biggest mistake I made during the election campaign was that my reading of elections past was that the campaign period didn’t really matter all that much.
That coloured basically everything I got right in the election campaign: that Jeremy Corbyn was fighting a very good one, particularly for broadcast, that Theresa May was fighting a very bad one, because at every stage I allowed my belief that campaigns didn’t really change very much to dictate my conclusions.
That lay behind my mistaken final conclusion: that Labour was surging, that the party was doing better, that Corbyn would emerge from the contest strengthened…but that first-past-the-post would mean that Labour would lose seats. Looking back, this was a terrible attempt to reconcile what I knew was happening with what I believed about election campaigns.

This is especially maddening as I wrote down a list of things I assumed about election campaigns partially so I could be aware of those biases.

It is true that it took several weeks of Labour doing almost everything right and the Conservatives doing almost everything wrong for the campaign to have an impact. I also think it’s true that some Tory MPs are taking too much comfort in the ability of a campaign to turn things around, and are therefore more relaxed about what they see as May’s mistakes than they should be. Nonetheless, while the circumstances of 2017 may not be repeated at the next election or indeed ever, in the future, I am going to try to be more alive to what I believe about a contest, and to think more about how that is influencing how I analyse what I know.