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May's campaign is coming undone

May's campaign is coming undone

Absence from leaders' debate weakens prime minister

by Brian Reading in London

Fri 2 Jun 2017

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UK Prime Minister Theresa May's election campaign is coming undone. An opinion poll lead of 20 percentage points over Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party when the 8 June snap election was called has eroded. The promised massive Conservative victory is no longer in sight.

Surveys by YouGov, a leading pollster, suggest May's party will lose its parliamentary majority. Reports on Thursday say Labour is only three percentage points behind in the polls and indicate the Conservatives, while remaining the largest party in parliament, will fall nine seats short of a majority in the House of Commons. Such surveys may be proved wrong, but the trend is undeniable. May's refusal to take part in a TV debate between party leaders probably worsened her position.

Support for the nationalist UK Independence Party collapsed after last June's referendum on European Union membership. This should have benefited May. Instead, Labour support has soared, up 10 percentage points on average in the polls. Failure to secure an enhanced majority will cripple May's authority.

May's call for a snap election was opportunistic. It was spurred by the large Conservative poll lead over Labour, Corbyn's low approval rating and the desire for a larger majority to strengthen May in forthcoming negotiations with the EU. But putting Brexit at the centre of her campaign is inept. The nation was almost equally divided in last year's referendum between Leavers (51.9%) and Remainers (48.1%). Any deal agreed with the EU which appeals to one side will outrage the other. May's request that voters 'strengthen her hand' is meaningless, since it has not been made clear how she will use such strength in the negotiations.

Corbyn's chosen arena is the domestic economy. The Conservative party, in power since 2010, has much to answer for in the light of extensive austerity measures and cuts to public services. Taxpayers and pensioners were largely spared while the National Health Service, education, the police, prisons and local governments were starved of funds. Nothing has been done to resolve Britain's dysfunctional housing market, and wages have stagnated.

Corbyn has reaffirmed the socialist policies his predecessors, Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, discarded between 1997-2010. His manifesto pledges do not add up, as the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies observed. That does not matter: individually, many of the pledges appeal and voters will support issues which affect them personally. Corbyn's unspoken message to the electorate is, 'You have never had it so bad.'

These predictions may prove wrong. If not, the implications are shocking. This election is, in practice, a second referendum on EU membership. Failure to win an enhanced Conservative majority or losing the present one leaves Britain at the mercy of Brussels. But this is inevitable in any case, since no agreement with the EU can satisfy both Leavers and Remainers. History suggests another election – probably in 2019 – will be needed to break the deadlock.

Brian Reading was an Economic Adviser to Prime Minister Edward Heath and is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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