To win is to lose and to lose is to win? That may be how Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May remember the election of 2017.
The story of the contest was of four failures and a success. The failed campaigns: the Greens, Ukip, the Liberal Democrats, and Theresa May’s. The success: for Jeremy Corbyn.
The Greens thought – and full disclosure, so did I – that the greater exposure that the short campaign and the debates would give to Caroline Lucas would see them soar in the polls. Instead, that the only message that has got out from that party is the “progressive alliance” means that the only time most people have heard from the Greens is when they’ve been telling people they’d probably be better off voting for someone else, a remarkable failure given the almost non-existent presence of climate change in either of the big two’s manifestos.
As for Ukip, well, what more needs to be said? Like the SDP before them, they went up like the rocket and are now coming down like the stick. They’ll take some consolation from the fact that, just as the SDP transformed Labour, they have remodelled the Conservative Party.
Speaking of the SDP – just as in 1987, Labour entered this election worried about being supplanted by another party, in this case the Liberal Democrats. Tim Farron talked to me of his ambition to replace Labour as the main opposition to the Conservative Party. Even some loyal Corbynites worried that Labour would go the same way as much of the European left. Instead, it is the Liberal Democrats may very well finish up with even fewer seats than they got in 2015.
As for Theresa May, she launched this campaign hoping for a shattering victory, and she will most likely still receive one, albeit in which the word “shattering” is used in a different context. As far as her standing with the public is concerned, she started the campaign with the stature of Tony Blair in 1994. She ends it as Tony Blair in 2005 – no longer adored, the subject of considerable resentment, but likely to end up with a big majority thanks to her continuing advantages on leadership and economic competence.
As for Corbyn, as I write in my column in this week’s NS, the leader’s office entered the election hoping for a repeat of the “brilliant defeat” of 1987, which Labour entered fearing a third-place finish, and Neil Kinnock ended an enhanced figure, with the ability to crack on for another five years.
Whatever happens today, Corbyn has done enough to secure that at least. Considerable pressure is being exerted on aspirant leaders, many of whom have been quietly canvassing support among the parliamentary party, not to launch a leadership bid that would “certainly fail” in the words of one Corbynsceptic. Much of his programme will endure until 2022, even if, as is more likely than not in my view, his personal leadership doesn’t.
What BritainThinks’ excellent report from their focus groups makes clear is that May’s failure is that she is now viewed as a traditional Conservative, with all the strengths and weaknesses that entails. Corbyn’s success is that he is now viewed as a traditional Labour leader, with all the strengths and weaknesses that entails. That’s not at all where CCHQ wanted to be today.
The problem of course is that when a traditional Conservative party meets a traditional Labour party, you tend to end up with the traditional result.