Theresa May is burdened by greater election expectations than any post-war prime minister. Three polls have given the Conservatives an elephantine 21-point lead – their largest in government since 1983 and enough for a majority of 150 seats. The Sun’s frontpage predicts that the PM will simply “kill off Labour”.
May will likely never have better circumstances in which to call an election. Labour is irretrievably divided and Jeremy Corbyn’s personal ratings are even worse than those of his party. For most in Westminster, the only question is how large the Conservatives’ majority will be.
But precisely for these reasons, some Tory MPs fear they will undershoot expectations. Though CCHQ will unleash the mother of all dossiers against Corbyn, the “risk” of him beoming PM appeared “too small,” an MP told me, for the attacks to resonate. In 2015, it was voters’ sincere fear that Ed Miliband would win (and do a deal with the SNP) that carried the Tories to a majority. In 2017, the common belief that Corbyn cannot win may limit the Conservatives’ gains. “We won’t get close to a majority of 100,” an MP told me earlier. “It’ll be much, much less.”
Labour MPs hope to survive by running on their local reputations and record. Some will produce their own manifestos, just as Corbyn and John McDonnell did in their backbench days. As one Labour MP, who predicted an early election, recently told me: “People will follow the Lib Dem playbook, treat the party as a franchise and run ultra-local campaign”. Leaflets will be free of references to Corbyn and national policy. “You’ve got to cut the mother ship adrift and row yourself to safety. It’s every man for himself now.”
Some Conservatives believe that such efforts could help Labour to hold onto more seats than expected (as it did in 2010). The unreformed constituency boundaries, dating back to 2005, will also aid Corbyn’s party.
The Tories are further troubled by the prospect of Lib Dem gains. As I recently revealed, a Conservative poll by Lynton Crosby showed the party would lose most of the 27 seats it won from Tim Farron’s party in 2015. MPs from Devon and Cornwall pleaded with May not to go the country. There is no turning back now. But remarkable as it may seem, a majority below 100 will be deemed a failure by some.