Theresa May called the general election in more favourable circumstances than any prime minister since 1945. The Conservatives had a 19-point poll lead. Labour appeared the weakest opposition for decades. And Brexit had gifted May a project to unite a fragmented right. Many anticipated a remorseless march to victory.
But the election has not proceeded as the Tories intended. Though the polls vary wildly, they converge on one point: the Conservative lead has been sharply reduced (to between three and 12 points). Unlike David Cameron in 2015, who was simply fighting to remain prime minister, May has faced the burden of high expectations. At the last election, the focus was on Labour and potential hung parliament deals. This time, with a Tory majority widely assumed, the Conservatives have endured greater scrutiny.
Campaign “wobbles” are of course nothing new. The Tories stumbled in 1987 but still won a majority of 102 seats (as some polls suggest May will). The Conservatives’ initially derided 2015 campaign was only lauded after it delivered an overall victory.
But recent weeks have inflicted lasting damage on May. The Prime Minister is unlikely to ever recover the standing she enjoyed before she went to the country. Conservatives privately draw comparisons with Gordon Brown, who was irrevocably wounded by the “election that never was”. After May’s inept U-turn on social care, the “Iron Lady” looks more like the Rusty Lady to some. “The idea that the country was going to fall in love with her was for the birds,” an ally of George Osborne told me, remarking on May’s awkward public persona. “She was only popular while her team hid her away”.
The very act of triggering an early election heightened the pressure on the Prime Minister. As Stanley Baldwin, Edward Heath and Clement Attlee learned to their cost, such a gambit can backfire. Voters are unforgiving of those who demand their judgement and then disappoint. May’s presidential-style campaign, with the Conservative brand marginalised, meant there was no hiding place when the wind changed.
The damage to the Tories has been intensified by policy flaws. After the Conservatives’ much-mocked 2015 manifesto (which sprayed around spending pledges and tax cuts), May’s team consciously crafted a sober, gimmick-free document. But it is one that has left the Tories short of retail policies.
Conservatives were stunned that the manifesto’s headline measure – the “dementia tax” – was one so predictably divisive (“It went down like cold sick,” one candidate told me of the reception in marginal seats). The plan was inserted at short notice by Nick Timothy, May’s pivotal co-chief of staff, with senior ministers not consulted. “Her inner circle doesn’t include a single member of the cabinet,” a Conservative candidate observed.
More appealing promises to cap energy tariffs and to build a new generation of council homes had already been trailed. A renewed commitment to increase the personal allowance to £12,500 and the 40p tax threshold to £50,000 went largely unmentioned. “May’s team can’t accept that David Cameron and George Osborne got one or two things right,” an Osborne ally told me, suggesting the party had no desire to promote pre-2016 policies.
Tory candidates are surprised by the lack of support for the “just managing” families May has so often spoken of. Others complain of tough doorstep encounters over the means-testing of the Winter Fuel Payment and the unspecified cap on social care costs. May rightly aspires to address the UK’s “five giant challenges” (an echo of Beveridge’s “five giant evils”). But as the conflicts over social care and National Insurance demonstrate, it is impossible to do so without creating losers.
In conversation with voters, and in polls, it becomes clear that it is unpopular Tory pledges that have cut through: “the dementia tax”, the return of fox hunting and the abandonment of the ivory trade ban. By contrast, Labour has enjoyed favourable coverage of popular policies: the abolition of tuition fees (the “big bazooka” that strategists believe will motivate youth turnout), the renationalisation of the railways and higher NHS spending.
No senior Labour figure I have spoken to believes YouGov’s projection of a hung parliament. “It feels like we’re going backwards, the Tories are going to gain seats from us and, other than one or two, I can’t see which we gain,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. He predicted a Conservative majority of 60-plus and doubted that Labour would retain at least 200 seats.
But if May does survive, she will do so as a reduced figure. Her Conservative support base remains shallow – the loyalty of too many MPs is conditional on her popularity. As a former Tory aide told me: “This is an unsentimental party”. There is no guarantee that the same ruthlessness that propelled May to Downing Street will not one day be ranged against her. Victory on 8 June would not mark the end of the Prime Minister’s problems but rather the beginning.