Back in December, when I first began writing about how Theresa May was not the strong and decisive Prime Minister the British establishment was making her out to be, I was alone in saying it. The British general election has turned my solitary view into a consensus. Today, as her poll ratings plunge, the British media is full of claims of how the election has exposed Theresa May as “brittle” and lacking in ideas, and as a ‘robotic’ Prime Minister, who is failing to connect with the British public.
This was cruelly exposed during back to back interviews the BBC’s veteran interviewer Jeremy Paxman conducted on Monday before a television audience, first with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and then with Theresa May. As many people noticed, whereas the television audience warmed to Jeremy Corbyn’s obvious sincerity and authenticity, they laughed and jeered at Theresa May.
Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn each took today a decision that will further emphasise the contrast between them. Whereas Corbyn has agreed to participate in a television debate with the other party leaders, Theresa May has refused to do so. Inevitably people are saying that this is because Theresa May is afraid to debate Corbyn on television, and they are right.
This is one of the strangest elections in British political history, and it has left the British political and media class baffled.
It began with the universal expectation that under Jeremy Corbyn’s supposedly shambolic and extremist leadership the Labour Party would experience a meltdown, with its support plunging to around 20% of the vote. Instead all the opinion polls show Labour steadily increasing its share of the vote. It is now polling 34-38% of the vote, not enough to win but more than it achieved in the last election in 2015, and far more than was expected when the election was called.
Moreover Labour has a gigantic lead amongst young voters (some estimates give Labour an 80% to 20% lead over the Conservatives amongst voters aged 18 to 24) and according to most opinion polls it leads the Conservatives amongst voters under 45. In addition it seems that the Labour vote in Scotland – against all expectations – is gradually edging up again, as support for the SNP falls.
To some extent all this reflects well established trends. Labour has historically always appealed to young voters, and has always done well in Scotland, where until 2015 it was the majority party. These advantages have however historically been more than offset by the Conservatives’ equally commanding lead amongst voters over 65, who not only make up an increasingly large share of the total population, but who are also the part of the British electorate which is most likely to vote. Labour’s seeming revival in this election simply represents the return of traditional and well established voting patterns, and with Labour still failing to make inroads amongst Conservative voting older voters it is still likely the Conservatives will win.
However this election was supposed to be different, with English working class voters supposedly put off by Corbyn’s supposed incompetence and extremism, and rallying behind Theresa May’s supposedly tough “hard Brexit” policy. After all the election was supposedly called to give Theresa May a mandate to negotiate a “hard Brexit”, though she has never clearly defined what she means by this.
At this stage in an election there must always be a question mark over the opinion polls, and despite the marked tightening of the opinion polls in recent days, I still believe that the Conservatives will ultimately win the election – probably by a bigger margin than some are now expecting – for the reason I gave above..
However if the result of the election is now open to doubt, it is because the media’s past representation of the two leaders – of Theresa May as strong and decisive, and of Jeremy Corbyn as bungling and weak – has been the reverse of the truth.
Ever since she became Prime Minister Theresa May’s conduct of the government has been accompanied by a succession of missteps and screeching U-turns, as she has acted immediately to reverse whatever policies appeared unpopular or controversial.
By contrast Corbyn has successfully seen off the most sustained challenge experienced by any opposition leader from within his own party in recent history. Moreover he has done so whilst remaining courteous and calm, and without compromising his basic policy positions, though he has wisely shown flexibility in the election by not pressing policies such as the abandonment of Britain’s nuclear deterrent or the abolition of the monarchy which he is known to support but which might alienate voters and split his party.
By any objective assessment it is Corbyn who is the stronger and more confident personality, and the reason the election has so far not gone as predicted is because the election campaign has exposed the fact. Corbyn’s decision to attend the party leaders’ debate, and Theresa May’s refusal to do so, highlights the fact.
The Wizard of Oz ends with the famous scene in which the banal reality of the insignificant Wizard behind the curtain is exposed to view. The Wizard frantically commands that no attention should be paid to the man behind the curtain. No one however listens to him and from that moment the awe and fear in which he is held – and his authority which derives from it – is gone.
With Theresa May Britain is now living through such a moment.
Regardless of what happens in the election a week from now, the illusion has been shattered. It is impossible to see Theresa May if or rather when she is re elected being represented once more as the commanding figure that she was before the election was called.