Theresa May will emerge from the general election as a “wounded” leader even if she achieves a majority of 50, one of the UK’s leading election experts warned last night.
According to Professor John Curtice, the further the Prime Minister falls behind that benchmark, the greater the pressure will be on her to quit after Thursday’s poll.
This week voters will deliver their judgment on May’s leadership, with a succession of opinion polls suggesting the gap between her and Jeremy Corbyn is tightening.
As May faces a public reckoning on her gamble to hold a snap election, Curtice said an ideal result for May would be to increase the Conservative majority from 12 to over 100.
Such a result appeared achievable when the Prime Minister called the election in April in the hope that she could take advantage of Labour’s disarray and strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations.
Since then, however, the Conservatives have run a lacklustre campaign which has been plagued by indecision and seen May criticised for refusing to take part in televised debates.
In contrast, Corbyn has surpassed expectations and made inroads into the Conservative lead, with a recent YouGov poll putting the Conservative lead over Labour at just three percentage points. Yesterday a poll by Opinium Research backed up other surveys suggesting the Tory lead is dwindling. The poll put the Tory lead down at six points, a drop from 19 points at the beginning of the campaign.
Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said there was just a 15 per cent probability of May winning a majority of 80-plus – the threshold he said was required to vindicate her decision to call an election.
“Anything much less than a majority of 80 will not be an unalloyed victory, and preferably she needs a majority of over 100. But anything less than 80 and they haven’t really achieved what they have set out to achieve,” Curtice told Scotland on Sunday.
“With a majority of 40 or 50 she’ll survive, but she’ll be wounded and won’t necessarily have liberated herself from her Brexiteers.”
Despite such a result delivering the biggest Tory majority for 30 years, failure to win the originally expected landslide could lead to pressure on the leadership from within her party.
“It will be a question of to what extent her colleagues start muttering,” said Curtice.
“Once we get below about 40 we are in the territory of ‘What the hell did we hold this election for?’ Then we get to the ‘Do you think she is going to hang around?’ territory. If it gets down towards 10 or 20 then you have clearly failed to achieve your objective.”
If the previously unthinkable outcome of a hung parliament, as forecast by last week’s YouGov poll, came to pass, then May would have to quit.
“In those circumstances I think she’s gone. The consensus seems to be that she’s gone,” said Curtice.
“Having held an election to ensure that she has a personal mandate we will discover that we have another Prime Minister who doesn’t have a personal mandate and we are probably looking at a Conservative minority administration, unless the numbers really do fall away.”
Meanwhile, the Scottish Tories used the final weekend of campaigning to say the election was the public’s “last chance” to halt Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for a second referendum.
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson made a plea for Labour and Lib Dem voters to back the Conservatives to stop indyref2.
Speaking in Aberdeen, she said: “Thursday’s election is the last chance we’ll have to stop Nicola Sturgeon in her tracks. It’s our last opportunity to have our say, make Nicola Sturgeon listen for once – and stop her second referendum. Come Friday morning, once we’ve cast our vote, we all know what she will try to do. She’ll try to use the result to push her demand for that second referendum. Just at the moment when we need to come together to face the challenges ahead, it would divide us once again.
“We simply can’t afford to let Nicola Sturgeon do this – not when our schools are in decline and our economy is nearing recession.
“So next Thursday is our last chance to stop her for good.
“Voting Labour won’t do that. Jeremy Corbyn said only last week that he would ‘open discussions’ with Nicola Sturgeon about another referendum if he becomes prime minister next week.
“So the only way to fight back against the SNP is to vote for us. This election isn’t about deciding whether you’re Tory, or Labour or Lib Dem. It’s about sending Nicola Sturgeon a message.”
Sturgeon, however, said only the SNP could fight the Tories in Scotland as she embarked on a helicopter tour of 30 constituencies in the run-up to polling day. Unlike in 2015, the aircraft did not have an image of the First Minister’s face – an omission that saw Tory Murdo Fraser suggest: “SNP chiefs regard brand Nicola a risk to the campaign”.
Sturgeon said: “While the Tories remain on course to win the election UK-wide, Scotland could be pivotal in reducing the size of their majority. Electing strong SNP voices is the only way to keep the Tories in check.
“Tory MPs will simply rubberstamp whatever toxic policies Theresa May wants to railroad through – whether that’s a smash and grab on pensions, deeper cuts to welfare, the abhorrent rape clause or further cuts to public services. SNP MPs will never give her that free hand.”
She added: “We simply can’t go on with more of the same. This snap election has presented a golden opportunity for voters across Scotland to say enough is enough.”