If a week is a long time in politics, 6 weeks are an eternity. Riding (very) high in the polls and facing a weak and divided opposition in the form of the Labour Party, Prime Minister Theresa May called an election to solidify her position within the Conservative Party, in parliament, in the eyes of the public, and ahead of the Brexit negotiations.
With conventional wisdom suggesting that May, previously characterised as a steady hand on the tiller in the face of incredibly complex negotiations with the European Union and with a 20 point lead in the polls, had a unassailable position.
Now, a couple of days after she was conspicuous by her absence in a TV debate against the other party leaders, coupled with some stumbling performances on the campaign trail, and a few weeks after her cataclysmic manifesto U-turn on the “dementia tax”, things look a little different for Prime Minister May.
YouGov now has her lead at just 3 points, while Ipsos MORI puts the difference at 5 points. Although others have the gap at around 15 points and most commentators believe the Conservatives are still on course for a majority, May nonetheless seems a diminished figure when compared with her pre-election peak.
The election has proven that she isn’t a born campaigner. A competent and steady Home Secretary, she always maintained a relatively low media profile for one of the great offices of state. Faced with a weak field in the leadership field in the Conservative leadership election, her previous strategy seemed to consist of allowing less accomplished candidates to disqualify themselves first. For many, a choice between Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May wasn’t really a choice.
Now, faced with the rigours and scrutiny of a 24/7 election campaign, the honeymoon is over. While Jeremy Paxman represents a formidable interviewer, she seemed taken aback that he would begin the interview by pointing out her support for Remain and studiously refused to answer his questions on it. Her interview with the Plymouth Herald was curious, and is perhaps the best example of her team’s determination to remain on message.
While her campaign’s decision to focus exclusively on May in the early days of the campaign seems sensible in the context of her reputation and the public’s preconceived ideas about her as ‘strong and stable’, it has shown she isn’t a natural communicator in the mold of David Cameron and Tony Blair.
Although her media strategy, described by Politico last year as “Ignore them”, seemed smart during the leadership election, it has shown some flaws in the election campaign. Commentator Charles Moore last week suggested that May is a missing an Alastair Campbell-like figure to “manage the message”.
This apparent lack of media strategy as well as the recent manifesto U-turn on the so-called “Dementia Tax” both point to a wider problem – an isolated top team that operates without input from the wider Cabinet or Conservative Party on the key decisions. The social care policy was apparently inserted into the manifesto at short notice by the Prime Minister’s aide Nick Timothy. The lack of consultation about the policy was evident when Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt had only days before told the Today programme that a cap on social care wouldn’t appear in the Conservative party manifesto.
Had the policy been ‘stress tested’ the Prime Minister and her team would surely have been told that, for a party that draws support heavily from pensioners, the policy had the potential to be kryptonite. Other policy announcements have seemed to be similarly politically tone-deaf and have opened up new and unnecessary new lines of argument.
Despite the apparent narrowing of the polls in recent days, it’s likely that Theresa May will still be Prime Minister on June 9th – with the only real question mark surrounding the size of her majority in parliament. Lacking genuine domestic opposition and with a strong track record, the British public is likely to entrust with her with sensitive and crucial Brexit negotiations. Despite that, she has been bruised by an election she called, and it is important to remember that May’s greatest challenge still lies when the need for strong and stable leadership will be greater than ever.
By Neil Thomas