When Theresa May, the British prime minister, called an election on 18 April, people saw it as a masterstroke. She had won the leadership of the Conservative party and become prime minister nine months previously. But the majority she had inherited from David Cameron, her predecessor, was small and threatened by hard Brexiteers. A victory in the election would give her a mandate. It was easy to predict that, with the state of the Labour party and the unpopularity of its leader Jeremy Corbyn, she would increase her majority.
In the last few days, that plan has come unstuck. May has made yet another of her U-turns – this time over a manifesto commitment that would result in many elderly people paying more for their care. Corbyn, meanwhile, has done unexpectedly well with his party manifesto.
With just over a fortnight until polling day, on 8 June, the election has entered new territory. Latest opinion polls show that the Tory lead has halved from around 18 percentage points to 9. This brings the Tory majority in seats down to double digits, from the triple figures predicted earlier. That itself may not be a huge setback for the prime minister. But given the increasing likelihood of unlikely events – and we cannot yet tell what will be the electoral consequence (if any) of the terrorist attack in Manchester on Monday night – a closer result cannot be ruled out. A further shrinking of the Conservative vote might, under certain circumstances, bring into view a many-sided and possibly chaotic coalition of the present opposition parties, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists.
Early opinion polls predicted that the Conservative would beat the 144-seat majority achieved by Margaret Thatcher in 1983. May herself had a commanding lead over Corbyn when voters were asked who would make the better prime minister. After the collapse of the UK Independence Party in the local elections in early May, it appeared obvious that UKIP votes would go to the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats, the only party committed to remaining in the European Union, found their poll share stuck in single figures.
Then, during the second week of May, the Labour’s manifesto was leaked. It promised to nationalise railways and the Royal Mail, and abolish university tuition fees. It pledged to increase income tax for the top 5% of earners and that value-added tax and national insurance contributions would not increase. The manifesto was widely criticised by commentators and compared to the Labour’s 1983 manifesto which was called ‘the longest suicide note in history’.
The advantage for Labour was that for a week until the official release, the media coverage was all about Labour’s manifesto. I was called by the London Evening Standard and I said it was ‘expensive but doable’.
For the media a division opened up. The public did not accept that the manifesto was absurd so the attack had to concentrate on Corbyn.
Then came the Conservative manifesto, which reversed the narrative. The Conservatives bravely tried to establish that people who could afford to pay for their social care should do so, with the state recovering the cost from their estates after their death. The manifesto also promised to stop making annual winter fuel payments of up to £300 to all elderly people. In future only the poorest would receive the money.
For once, the Tory manifesto was more boldly redistributive than Labour’s. But it was distributive across the age divide; the elderly would pay for their care, not younger taxpayers. In the ensuing uproar the social care proposal was described as a ‘dementia tax’. An unfair label – but effective. By Sunday 21 May, the Tory lead had fallen to single figures.
Panic broke out in the Conservative campaign headquarters when Sunday’s polls were published. This is supposed to happen to Labour not the Conservatives. There were manifesto revisions and a recantation to calm the nerves. May is arguing for ‘strong and stable’ government but the panic showed a party leader who was neither.
Up to last weekend, May had enjoyed a reasonably gentle ride in the election campaign. The going in the next fortnight will certainly be a lot tougher.
Lord (Meghnad) Desai is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Chairman of the OMFIF Advisory Board. Between 1982-92, Desai was Labour party Chair for the constituency of Islington South and Finsbury.