Insight: how voters' faith in Theresa May faltered

Over the course of 48 hours in the middle of last month, two opinion polls suggested modern political history was about to be rewritten. A Comres survey on 17 April put the Conservatives 21 points ahead of Labour (46 per cent to 25 per cent), giving the party its biggest lead in government since 1983, when the Thatcher administration secured the most decisive election victory since that of Labour in 1945. A day later, a YouGov survey put the Tories on 44 per cent. In sharp contrast, Labour trailed behind on 23 per cent, the party's lowest show of support in eight years.

Cumulatively, they appeared to summarise a situation many thought self-evident; the Tories were, to be blunt, a sure thing. The same day as the YouGov poll, Prime Minister Theresa May, having previously warned that a snap election would result in instability, gambled on the opposite being true.

Taking to a lectern in Downing Street, she announced the UK would go to the polls. In a confident address, she warned that at a moment of “enormous national significance”, the country was coming together, “but Westminster is not”.

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The subtext was transparent. This was to be a vote on Brexit, designed to embolden May’s fledgling government and ward off rebellion. “Let us remove the risk of uncertainty and instability, and continue to give the country the strong and stable leadership it demands,” she concluded.

Some 47 days later, the question is not how steadfast the government can be, but who will form that government.

The majority of the latest polls indicate the Tories remain ahead, but their drastic drop in support has raised questions that were once unthinkable. The veteran psephologist, Sir David Butler, who has been covering election polling since Clement Attlee enjoyed a comprehensive victory over Churchill, said the polls have changed more over the course of this campaign than in any he recalls.

A recent YouGov poll, released with just a week to go, pointed towards potential disarray by predicting a hung parliament, although the firm conceded its methodology – a seat-by-seat estimate projected into a notional national result – was far from conventional. In any case, the track record of the polling industry following Brexit and the US election ought to leave further room for doubt.

It is, though, a warning shot for May. John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said May’s precise definition of victory meant anything less than a convincing majority could spell disaster for her political career.

“We’re still talking about the Tories winning the election, but of course the whole point is Theresa May has set herself a very high goal of a landslide,” he said. “Her worst case scenario is that she loses her overall majority, and I think in those circumstances there’s an increasing consensus that she would be toast.”

Even with the pollsters as unreliable narrators of the nation’s mood, it looks increasingly unlikely that May’s call for “certainty and stability for the years ahead” will be met.

But how did the Conservatives and their leader manage to blow a seemingly unassailable lead to go from projected landslide to the prospect of shock defeat?

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is generally regarded as having run an impressive campaign. Save for his embarrassing lapse when asked to put a cost on the party’s childcare plans, he has avoided gaffes and seized the momentum with a leaked manifesto that was heavily trailed and has proven popular.

That alone, however, does not explain how the yawning gap between the two parties has narrowed so rapidly.

Mark Wallace, executive editor of the centre-right website ConservativeHome, pointed to tragic circumstances being outwith May’s control.

“She was driven off track by the manifesto problems and then the appalling events in Manchester, which obviously put the event on hold.”

But the Conservatives, according to one of their MSPs at Holyrood, have also “lost control of the message” that defined the campaign.

May has positioned the party as the only viable choice to secure a strong deal for Britain in the Brexit process; during her speech announcing the election, she mentioned Brexit, Europe and the EU no fewer than 16 times.

Yet the issue has fallen away from prominence in recent weeks, despite polls showing that it remains the single most important topic of consideration among the electorate.

“At times in the campaign you could have been forgiven for forgetting there was a referendum on Europe,” the MSP said. “It’s been low key and to our detriment.”

According to Iain Dale, the political commentator and publisher, May has failed to follow through with her grand plan for a single-issue election.

“The fact Brexit hasn’t been a priority of the campaign is part of the reason they have had so many problems,” he said. “I think a lot of people have forgotten why she called the election in the first place, and her speech on Thursday was meant to remind them.”

Why, though, has Brexit been allowed to slip down the agenda? It merits only a handful of mentions in the 88-page Conservative manifesto, with scant detail on the party’s ambitions and emphasis placed instead on the process itself.

With negotiations yet to begin, that is perhaps unsurprising, but some Conservative commentators believe the absence of any new developments has been a thorn in May’s side.

Wallace said: “One of the challenges of Brexit as a topic is that all the elements of it that need to be discussed have already been addressed.

“Theresa May laid out her broad terms back at the party conference, and fleshed it out in her Lancaster House speech at the start of the year. That means there’s a limit on how much spontaneous new news you can produce when your position is established.”

Dale, a former Conservative candidate, agreed: “The problem is that they have very little to say. It would be helpful for the Conservatives, I suppose, if Jean-Claude Juncker was to come out with something that they could latch on to.”

If the stasis surrounding Britain’s departure from the European Union offers one explanation for May’s inability to set the campaign’s tone, there is a clear case that many of her party’s mishaps are of its own making.

Their campaign has been waylaid by other issues in its manifesto, chief among them the contentious proposal to change the way in which social care is funded.

May’s intention, announced as part of a manifesto launch which promised to focus on “true Conservatism”, was to roll out a system which would raise the cost of care threshold to £100,000, but include the value of someone’s home in the calculation of their assets for home, as well as residential care.

UK government sources suggested that the combination of the new approach, coupled with the plan to means-test winter fuel payments, could save a total of around £2bn. However, the England-only policy, swiftly dubbed the “dementia tax”, was widely derided.

The strength of public opposition is evident when contrasting the results of two similar poll questions, taken before and after the announcement. One, conducted between 12 and 14 May, asked voters to choose the leader they trusted most when it comes to “protecting the interests of pensioners”. The Tory leader edged out Corbyn by 29 per cent to 28 per cent.

Yet a similar question asked of voters between 24 and 26 May – namely, who they trusted to “look after the future of our pensioners” – saw the Labour leader soar in front with 41 per cent to May’s 24 per cent.

“The social care issue is part of a wider narrative,” suggests Curtice. “People are thinking, ‘Hang on. This is someone who isn’t necessarily as surefooted as we might think’.”

After four days, amid staunch denials that any backtracking was imminent, May announced a yet to be specified cap on what the government could take from people’s estates after their death.

In the eyes of some Conservatives, she has not gone far enough. One candidate standing for election this week said May had ostracised a demographic the party relied on.

“The plan now is for a green paper on what the cap should be, which is not ideal,” he said. “The principle of taking it to consultation is a sound one, but the way it has been handled means there is a great deal of uncertainty and nervousness. There is questioning still going on. It’s been described as a U-turn – it’s not. The detail has just been taken out. That’s reassuring for some people but it’s unsettling for others.”

Wallace, a former head of media relations for the Institute of Directors and campaign director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, believes that although the social care stance is divisive, it need not necessarily translate into further Labour gains.

“There’s a distinction between actively liking or disliking a certain policy, and that being necessarily enough to change someone’s vote,” he cautioned.

What has been subject to a U-turn, however, is the image of the leaders. Corbyn, for so long dismissed as an unelectable radical, has demonstrated a relaxed, personable manner during his media appearances.

May, on the other hand, has been roundly derided for sticking to scripted messages, closed-door decision-making and a failure to properly engage. The video of her exchange with a reporter from the Plymouth Herald, offering bland platitudes in response to detailed questions, was a recent nadir.

Her decision to avoid a televised BBC debate in which Corbyn took part, with Home Secretary Amber Rudd taking her place, also led to accusations that she lacked “guts” and was “running away”. The consequence, Curtice believes, is a reversal of fortunes on the part of the leaders.

“One of the ironies of this election is that with a few days to go, Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as leader of his party now looks firmer than that of Theresa May,” he added.

But is the momentum now with Labour, and to what end? If May fails to secure a majority, her political career will be in tatters. Even if her efforts to shrink or, at best, preserve the 12-seat majority secured by her predecessor, David Cameron, the pressure on her to step down as PM will be considerable. Should she do so, hers would become the shortest tenure in Downing Street since John Stuart, the third Earl of Bute – and Britain’s first Scottish PM – departed politics for the altogether more gentle world of botany.

There is even the possibility of another quick snap election, in line with the events of 1974, when Harold Wilson, having succeeded Ted Heath, moved to increase his slender minority. Curtice, however, believes no Conservative minority government would countenance such a gamble. “The only reason we had this election is because May thought she was going to win a landslide,” he said. “Unless we’re back in that world, are you going to commit suicide twice?”

In Wallace’s view, the only credible way May can prevent such a scenario is to “bring the campaign back to the fundamentals” between now and Thursday.

He said: “In the final few days, she has to focus on Brexit and the comparison between her and Jeremy Corbyn.

“The question is, ‘Each day, is the agenda being set by Conservative HQ or somewhere else?’ By and large, it hasn’t been the case that the Conservatives have been talking about the issues they want to talk about.”

Dale agreed that May has just a few days to impress upon the electorate that she is best suited to the office of prime minister.

“The whole election campaign was supposed to be seen through the prism of Brexit and leadership, and it hasn’t been,” he said.

“Her big challenge of the next few days will be to assert her leadership credentials.”

“It’s been a perfect storm for the Conservatives so far. The social care policy has turned out to be highly unpopular, you have Theresa May being criticised for being a soundbitey robot and not taking part in the debates, and you have Jeremy Corbyn upping his game.

“That explains the narrowing of the polls. Whether they will narrow further, I don’t know. We’ll soon see.”