Bill Jamieson: Poll victory can still be an election defeat

Theresa May set out looking for a 100-seat majority, but could end up in a worse position than before, says Bill Jamieson
Theresa Mays plan for a thumping majority to give her Brexit-negotiation kudos may backfire spectacularly.Theresa Mays plan for a thumping majority to give her Brexit-negotiation kudos may backfire spectacularly.
Theresa Mays plan for a thumping majority to give her Brexit-negotiation kudos may backfire spectacularly.

If you felt this was already a make-believe election, be prepared for the most improbable result: a poll ‘victory’ for the Conservatives – that is also a crushing political defeat.

Let’s assume the latest opinion poll projection showing the Conservatives could fail to win an outright majority is ‘rogue’. Let’s assume also that yesterday’s fall in the pound – following on previous poll-related slides last week – is an over-reaction.

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And let’s assume also that overall poll indications are more accurate, and that the Conservatives win a majority of seats.

But the result still looks to fall dramatically short of the thumping hundred-seat plus majority widely forecast at the outset of the election campaign.

There is no doubting that the Conservative campaign has signally failed to inspire; that Theresa May has stumbled on key manifesto points and that Jeremy Corbyn, for all his memory failure on the BBC radio Woman’s Hour interview, has won some sympathy and respect.

The Tory campaign has been little short of disastrous. And it opens the prospect that the Prime Minister’s position will have been weakened, not strengthened, on 9 June.

A much smaller election victory than widely supposed – perhaps fortunate to retain the previous majority of 17 seats – will weaken her Brexit negotiating hand with the European Commission; give heart to backbench Tory critics, raise morale among diehard ‘Remain’ campaigners and weaken the government’s resolve to push through its debt and deficit reduction targets.

As for Labour, such an outcome would strengthen the hand of Jeremy Corbyn and make it all the more difficult for party moderates to unseat him – as has also been widely predicted.

And it makes more credible the possibility, formal or informal, of a Labour-SNP alliance that could render “strong and stable government in the national interest” an empty campaign slogan.

How could the Conservatives be losing support while faced with some of the most fatuous and improbable spending proposals ever put forward by the Labour Party?

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Who seriously believes that a Corbyn administration could find an extra £250bn (no, a decimal point isn’t missing) for a capital spending infrastructure programme; an extra £6bn for the NHS; an extra £1.6bn for social care; build 100,000 new council houses; employ 1,000 extra border guards; re-nationalise the railways, Royal Mail and the water industry – and pledge to provide free childcare for all two to four year-olds, costing £5.3bn?

Voters would have taken collective leave of their senses if they were to believe that almost £50bn of extra spending could be financed without massive increases in tax and borrowing without triggering a capital flight and economic slump.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is banking everything on a ‘me-too’ anti-Tory, anti-austerity vote. The SNP’s spending proposals are scarcely more credible – maintaining the triple lock on the state pension, keeping the winter fuel payment for all, ending the cash freeze on benefits and demanding the UK government “frees up” (sic) £118bn of public money across the UK over the next parliament. She also wants England to increase NHS spending by £11bn – yielding over £1bn for Scotland via the Barnett Formula.

It is Ruth Davidson who has mounted the more effective Tory campaign. And the reality is that Scotland’s budget deficit – currently at £14.8bn or 9.5 per cent of GDP – is more than twice that of the UK and higher than any other member of the EU, including Greece. North Sea oil revenues have collapsed by £9.6bn since 2011-12 with little improvement in sight. Indeed, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the fiscal gap between the UK and Scotland in the current financial year is projected at 5.6 per cent of national income, equivalent to about £9.5bn, or around £1,750 per person in Scotland. That is the size of the Scottish deficit on top of its share of the overall UK deficit (which is £880 per person in the UK in the same year).

For the Conservative campaign, the targets are surely impossible to miss; an exercise akin to shooting fish in a barrel. But instead it has resorted itself to a relentless attack on the persona of Jeremy Corbyn, his ‘fitness’ for office and his lack of credibility as a Brexit negotiator. Time and again it’s gone for the player, not the ball. But the player has been performing markedly better than expected in TV debates. He has stood his ground and continued to offer in cool, quiet-voiced terms his radical alternative.

Against this, Theresa May has campaigned on her leadership skills and tough Brexit negotiating posture while back-tracking on social care proposals with the ink barely dry on manifesto commitments – this following U-turns on the Budget national insurance hikes and calling the election itself.

It is an approach that offers little by way of positive policy and that has failed to gain momentum, let alone inspire. Indeed, a striking feature of the campaign has been its lukewarm response at best among many traditional pro-Tory lobbies – business, and the SME sector in particular. The frequent charge of ‘coalition of chaos’ levelled by the Tory leader against her opponents has come to backfire amid reports of rows and division among the Tory ranks.

The party manifesto, widely thought in Tory heartlands as too Left-leaning, has cooled the ardour of the party faithful. In particular, the social care proposals were seen to strike directly at older, middle class Tory supporters and weakened a key electoral powerbase.

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As a result, having staked so much in securing a massive personal endorsement, to the point of muting other voices in the Tory Cabinet, it is Theresa May whose credibility and authority over her party that now stands to take the blow if the large mandate fails to materialise.

Set against this is the undemonstrative nature of much of the Conservative vote and its aversion to ideology, especially of the ‘Big State’ type. A natural reluctance among voters to take big risks, particularly ahead of complex and hazardous Brexit negotiations, should still see the Conservatives emerge as the biggest party on 8 June. But the way things are going it is unlikely to win the policy arguments.

And there is a reticence among many voters to deliver to governments of any hue an overwhelming majority. Edward Heath felt sure he would emerge victorious in the ‘Who governs Britain’ election of early 1974 only to lose to Harold Wilson. Neil Kinnock felt victory was assured in 1992, but he lost to the ‘grey man’ John Major. Tony Blair was confident of a thumping third election victory in 2005, only to secure the smallest winning share of the vote recorded and a vastly reduced majority, hastening the handover to Gordon Brown.

All this suggests that while the election may not deliver a convincing resolution on 8 June, the political battle will intensify. After a make-believe election, an irresolute result and an even more intense war of words.