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Theresa May’s public meltdown from ‘strong and stable’ juggernaut to ‘weak and wobbly’ Lada has been the unintentional focus of this general election campaign but, with the money still on a majority of some sort, we can at least be grateful it’s happening at all. Sir Vince Cable’s savage takedown of Gordon Brown’s transformation ‘from Stalin to Mr Bean’ in 2007 reminds us how things could have been. For all the similarities between the two, at least May didn’t ‘bottle it’.
But the collapse in the Conservative poll lead to just five points – despite still being well within the forties – also conjures up political memories of ‘Wobbly Thursday’, a week before polling day in June 1987, when Margaret Thatcher’s lead was cut down to four points. According to legend, then-employment secretary David Young shook Norman Tebbit by the lapels shrieking ‘we’re about to lose this ****ing election.’ As it happened, it was a rogue poll, and the Conservatives sailed to victory with an 11 point lead at the ballot box and a 102 seat majority.
Labour’s rise from a low of 25 per cent to a high of 40 per cent, hovering mostly around the 35 per cent mark, suggests the cut in the Tory lead is not a rogue poll (though it could be another ‘I agree with Nick’ Clegg moment). This has caused considerable panic among some Conservatives I know who worry a Corbyn premiership is an actual possibility. In an amusing irony, one who works in financial services is even making plans to move to Paris. The concern is that polling at around 43 per cent – a share of the vote not seen since Tony Blair’s historic landslide in 1997 – means little when an army of Trots are only five points behind. After all Blair, like Thatcher a decade earlier, enjoyed a double-digit lead over his opponents at the ballot box. The Conservatives are still very much scarred by John Major’s 1992 non-victory – securing the largest electoral mandate in British history with 14 million votes and a 42 per cent vote share, but with only a 7.5 per cent lead and a paltry majority of 21.
But, without wanting to encourage complacency, this seems something of an overreaction. Political conditions are not anything like they have been in any of the elections mentioned above. The destabilising fallout of the EU referendum, the Scottish independence referendum, and the coalition government has seen to that. Political allegiances have been remade and arguably the single greatest outcome of this – which I didn’t see coming – has been a return to the two-party system. Left-wing voters have finally cottoned on that there is no point having a kaleidoscope of centre-left parties when, with the collapse of Ukip, the centre-right is now united behind the Conservatives. The result is the Liberal Democrats have gone from polling between the high teens and early twenties to single digits. Consequently the whole dynamic of what vote shares and polling leads mean has completely changed – and you have to go as far as the Swinging Sixties to get an idea of how current swings might play out.
The last election in which the Liberals, as they then were, polled as low as they do today was 1970 when they finished with 7.5 per cent of the vote and six seats. What’s interesting about that election by modern standards, apart from being the one which took us into Europe, is a lead of only 3.4 points over Labour translated into a comfortable 31 seat majority for the Conservatives. Likewise, in the previous 1966 election, Harold Wilson’s Labour won a convincing 96 seat majority with a six point lead over the Conservatives –far less than Theresa May’s 8.6 mean average in the last week (May 26 – June 2).
That doesn’t mean May has it in the bag – we’re still very much in uncharted waters – but there’s also little point in shaking each other by the lapels over a storm in a teacup. Reading the tea leaves from a hitherto bygone political era may well prove more instructive.