Four weeks ago this election was a foregone conclusion. Theresa May sold herself as the ‘strong and stable’ leader who could be trusted on Brexit and repair Britain’s ills. Gleefully making hay that she would be a ‘bloody difficult woman’ to negotiate with, the contrast with Jeremy Corbyn, who struggled to lead his own parliamentary party let alone the country, couldn’t have been starker. Talk in some quarters of a 150 plus seat Conservative majority and the Labour party being reduced to rubble was commonplace.
But the 2017 campaign has downgraded such expectations. Whatever the result on Friday morning, this has been the worst campaign by a Conservative incumbent Prime Minister since February 1974. And the public has noticed. A vacuous manifesto, short on costs and clear proposals, the U-turn on social care, confusion on tax and public gaffes such as linking disability and mental illness have caused her satisfaction ratings to tumble into negative territory. Most importantly, the competence and judgement cards that May has so relied on as a leader have taken a hit. Corbyn on the other hand has certainly converted voters, particularly women and the young, albeit he was starting from a low base. Buoyed by a popular manifesto, polished performances in TV debates and a more personable style than May, Corbyn has seen noticeable improvements in leader ratings. This alongside the airing of popular policies has seen support for Labour grow.
Depending on what poll you believe and if you are persuaded by noises from the troops on the ground, the race is either close or the Conservatives are still likely to achieve a comfortable majority. The fundamentals point to the latter. May still enjoys a lead over Corbyn on satisfaction ratings and who would make the best Prime Minister, and the Conservatives have held a consistent margin over Labour on economic credibility. The appalling atrocities in Manchester and London have also placed national security at the centre of the campaign. Here, despite May taking a hit on austerity cuts to the Police and other public services, Corbyn’s historical baggage and confusion over Trident has weakened him among certain sections of the electorate. The competence and judgement of key figures in the Corbyn team has also been the focus of relentless Conservative attacks. The final piece of the jigsaw is Brexit. Here the Conservatives have hoovered up the Leave vote with in excess of 70% of leavers stating they intend to vote Conservative. Trust, judgement and competence are once again central in swaying voters towards the Conservatives. For some voters, supporting Labour, despite their Brexit policy, is a risk not worth taking.
But it’s not a foregone conclusion. Corbyn has sold the Labour product as offering hope over fear. The Conservatives offer unsexy stability and as-you-were. Despite the vagueness in numerous policy areas, their pitch is on trust. Whatever the result, May’s rhetoric of ‘building a Britain that works for everyone’ is treated with scepticism among many. Rather than healing the chasm that exists in Britain, the campaign has arguably deepened the divide between young and old; urban and rural; nativists and internationalists; authoritarians and liberals; unionists and nationalists. Once the results roll in on Friday morning the recriminations and empire building will begin. A majority of less than 50 will leave May bruised and battered as she goes into the Brexit negotiations. The opportunity of destroying the Labour party will have passed and senior Conservatives will be touting future contenders for the party leadership. An 80 seat or more loss for Labour will once again see the party turn on itself in an attempt to oust Corbyn. The roller-coaster ride which is British politics will continue apace.