It was an unnecessary election. That was the general view when it was called. The Government had a majority in the Commons and had faced no rebellions. With only a couple of exceptions Tory MPs who had voted to remain in the EU – and campaigned for a Remain vote –went obediently into the lobby to support the Prime Minister, who had put her Remain past firmly behind her, and now promised that she would deliver strong and stable government and the best possible Brexit.
In the Red corner she was opposed – feebly, it was assumed – by the furthest Left Labour leader ever, a man who made Michael Foot look middle of the road. Nobody had ever questioned Foot’s patriotism, which certainly couldn’t be said of Jeremy Corbyn. Mocked by the Press, distrusted by people who normally voted Labour, Corbyn was clearly a washout, unelectable, except of course by the far-Left loonies who had twice elected him Labour leader.
Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats, the only party unequivocally in favour of EU membership, were led by a man whom few recognized and even fewer respected. So it was going to be a walkover for Mrs May. There would be a Tory landslide. The Vicar’s Daughter would get a bigger majority than the Grocer’s Daughter ever had, and this would give her immense authority when the Brexit negotiations began in earnest.
It looked like being the most boring election since 2001 when the sun was still shining bright on Tony Blair and poor little William Hague couldn’t lay a glove on him.
It hasn’t worked out like that. Not at all. It has, for three reasons, turned interesting.
First, Mrs May has proved a poor campaigner. She may preach strength and stability, but she appears weak and evasive. The rumpus about the so-called dementia tax – her plan to finance social care – showed first that she and her close advisers had no idea how people would react to the proposal; second, and more damagingly, that, finding it was unpopular, she gave way to panic, did another of her right-about-turns, and then pretended in TV interviews that she had done no such thing..
It made one wonder just how strong and stable her leadership in the Brexit negotiations would be. And the answer was not reassuring.
Second, while the supposedly formidable Mrs May has been having a poor campaign, the supposedly ridiculous Mr Corbyn has been having a good one. Of course there is much in his record that is deplorable, but it’s doubtful whether, for instance, his sympathetic association with the IRA, Hamas and such like, does him great damage. The IRA are past history; there has been peace (of a sort) in Northern Ireland for almost half the lifetime of a 40 year-old voter. And millions couldn’t tell you the difference between Hamas and hummus.
More importantly Corbyn repeatedly returns to one of the big issues of our time: inequality, the consequence of an economic system geared in favour of the rich and against the mass of the working population. He may have no answer to the problem, any more than Bernie Sanders had in his attempt to win the Democratic nomination in last year’s American Presidential election. But, as with Mr Sanders, nobody can doubt which side Jeremy Corbyn is on, and it’s the popular one.
Third, because Corbyn has been inept at Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, where Mrs May has been assured, it was assumed that in TV interviews she would come across as competent and authoritative, while he would seem wild and woolly. But it hasn’t been like that. Mrs May has been evasive and defensive, Mr Corbyn relaxed and polite. On TV and radio what you say often matters less than how you say it, and Corbyn interviews much better than the Prime Minister.
Nevertheless he is still going to lose the election – unless there is a remarkable shift in the last week – and Mrs May will still be Prime Minister on June 9, almost certainly with an enhanced majority, if not with the landslide predicted at the beginning of the campaign. Yet she will emerge weakened, not in numbers, but in authority. Her weaknesses have been exposed. Comparison with Margaret Thatcher will seem absurd. She suddenly looks more like Ted Heath, a poor communicator, wooden and obstinate.