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May error 'worst since Heath in 1974'

May error 'worst since Heath in 1974'

Political hubris and European engagement

by David Marsh in Berlin

Fri 9 Jun 2017

Seldom has political hubris been so spectacularly on display. Theresa May's failed gamble in orchestrating an early UK poll is the worst prime ministerial electoral miscalculation since Edward Heath called a snap election in 1974. That election resulted in a hung parliament where the Labour party under Harold Wilson finished ahead and won a new vote nine months later.

Yesterday's poll was the second successive Conservative electoral blunder, following the decision by David Cameron, May's predecessor, to call the June 2016 referendum on Britain’s European Union membership which resulted in a 52-48 exit vote and Cameron’s resignation immediately afterwards. May will be hard pressed to avoid a similar fate.

Benefiting from an unusual 20 percentage points polling lead over a Labour party that appeared luckless and semi-leaderless, May six weeks ago threw caution to the wind and decided to seek a new mandate to reinforce her position over Europe. 

Instead Jeremy Corbyn, whom many in his own party termed unelectable just a few weeks ago, has emerged as a popular, down-to-earth, anti-austerity figurehead appealing especially to younger voters. Labour's ability to galvanise the youth vote, amid a welcome rekindling of interest in politics throughout the UK, was a major factor behind the party’s much better than expected performance. 

May's aim was to win substantially, crush Labour, and gain backing for a reasonable EU exit deal. With European politics bedevilled by uncertainty amid a presidential election in France, May gambled that she could swap her unelected prime ministerial status for the prize mantle of the sole top European leader with sizeable popular backing for her policies.

All this has ended badly – which many in the Conservative party will blame on May's own misjudgement over Conservative manifesto pledges on making rich elderly people pay for their social care. Compounding the setback, Emmanuel Macron has succeeded against the odds – first in winning the French presidential election last month and then in consolidating his grip over France's political machinery ahead of the two rounds of parliamentary elections on 11 and 18 June. This has resuscitated Franco-German relations and created a formidable united front against the UK – greatly complicating Britain's engagement in forthcoming Brexit negotiations. 

Earlier this year, May repeatedly ruled out an early election on the grounds that this would be a distraction from the Brexit talks. She was swayed by counter arguments, above all the opportunity of appearing a strong leader on the European stage. She has achieved some consolation prizes, erasing the long-running irritant of the UK Independence Party, and scoring some useful wins against the Scottish National Party. However, the Brexiteer hardliners in her party will be as querulous as ever as a new battle looms between different Conservative factions.

This is not the first surprise in the Brexit saga. Cameron didn't expect to lose the June referendum and said he would stay on if he did. The Leave side did not expect to win and had no prepared leadership plan. Financial markets and economists of all persuasions expected the UK economy to dip after the result. It didn't happen, although there are now signs that reduced living standards and higher economic uncertainty are starting to weigh on the British psyche.

May had the chance of recovering from Cameron's fiasco. Instead she has presided over a new political disappointment that will go down as yet another melancholic chapter in the Conservative party's litany of European misfortunes.

David Marsh is Managing Director of OMFIF.

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