LONDON – Theresa May was never supposed to lead Britain’s Conservative Party. She wasn’t a member of the new generation of Tories like former Prime Minister David Cameron, his ally George Osborne or rival Boris Johnson – the smooth, sophisticated Eton College-educated men who had progressed through booze-fueled parties at Oxford, done a few easy jobs in media or finance, and went on to secure a safe parliamentary seat in their thirties.
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Just like them, May never belonged to the right wing of the party and believed in “detoxifying” what she described as “the nasty party.” But she lacked the polish, the connections, the rhetorical skills and effortless ease with which they had made their way to the top. As the staunchly middle class only daughter of a vicar, her ascent took much longer. Serving for a decade on a local council, and then running – and failing twice – to win a parliamentary seat in Labour-held constituencies, she was finally allowed to contest a “safe seat” in 1997, at 41.
She was gradually entrusted with important positions, including party chairwoman while the Conservatives were still in opposition, and home secretary in 2010, when Cameron formed his first government. But these are rarely popular roles in British politics, certainly not a stepping stone to 10 Downing Street.
Eleven months ago, May was elevated to both party leader and prime minister, unopposed, following Cameron’s resignation after he lost the Brexit referendum. She was the last senior figure standing after a prolonged period of bloodletting within the party’s leadership over Britain’s relationship with Europe. May had never belonged to one of the ideological camps for or against remaining in the European Union (officially, before the referendum she supported “remain,” but barely campaigned for the cause). With Cameron gone and the other Tory “big beasts” discredited, she seemed the person best placed to bring some unity to the party.
Realms of science fiction
If May seemed an unlikely candidate only a year ago, then two years ago the thought of Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the Labour Party was in the realms of science fiction. The radical-left activist, who for over three decades voted no fewer than 617 times against his party’s positions – especially those of Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – had never been considered for a front bench position.
Corbyn put his candidacy forward in 2015, after then-leader Ed Miliband resigned following the general election, driven by a sense of duty to his far-left colleagues. He didn’t expect to win but said it was his “turn” to represent his wing of the party. His candidacy didn’t even have enough signatures from fellow MPs, but at the last moment a sufficient number signed even though they opposed his views. Corbyn was allowed to run “to enable a debate.” Everyone expected him to finish last.
Just like the Conservatives over Europe, Labour had been riven for over a decade by Tony Blair’s decision to join President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. While the party leadership was still dominated by the former ministers who had served under Blair, many on the British left yearned for a clean break with centrist “New Labour,” and hundreds of thousands of new members joined the party just to vote for Corbyn. He won the leadership contest by a landslide, followed by a second landslide last summer when Labour’s MPs rebelled and forced a second leadership election.
May and Corbyn, the most unlikely and accidental leaders of the two main parties, in the most unpredictable of matchups. None of the bookmakers who take bets on the most outlandish of political outcomes would have offered odds on a May-Corbyn contest two years ago. But on Thursday, the public will choose whether May remains in Downing Street, their votes determining whether she enlarges her currently slim majority of only 12 seats, or loses her majority and leaves Britain with a “hung parliament.” Not a single pollster is predicting a Corbyn victory, but no one can rule anything out at this late stage.
This election’s script was written in advance. When May announced in mid-April she was calling an election three years early, it was clear she was planning to capitalize on the Conservatives’ massive popularity in the polls – some gave them a more than 20 percent lead over Labour.
Corbyn, leading a split party and lagging behind in the polls, was seen as a man who could never lead. May, on the other hand, enjoyed the image of a responsible and experienced minister who would ensure an orderly and relatively successful exit from the EU.
For the first weeks of the campaign, the Tories’ numbers remained healthy and entire Labour strongholds – in the Midlands, northeast England and Wales – seemed to face a wipeout. But something went wrong along the way.
Midway through the campaign, the margin began shrinking and Labour started to climb relentlessly in the polls. The polling is erratic, with results ranging from 13 percent to just one percentage point in the Conservatives’ favor. No one is predicting a Labour victory, but it’s a far cry from the total obliteration expected less than a month ago.
What has changed? The campaign waged by the Conservatives certainly played a part. May has run on the promise that only she and her team can offer a “strong and stable” leadership while Corbyn would provide a “coalition of chaos.” But this was backed up by mixed and hesitant messages, and a prime minister who was noticeably apprehensive and uncomfortable when meeting the public. A botched manifesto launch forced her to retreat publicly from a major Conservative policy regarding the funding of social care for the elderly. Save for promising to take care of Brexit, the party and its leader failed to project any sense of a vision for Britain.
Corbyn, by comparison, clearly enjoys being on the campaign trail and meeting people around the country. His campaign managers made sure he would visit mainly towns where Labour has large groups of supporters, and he is constantly seen smiling among hundreds of fans.
Labour’s manifesto includes promises for free university tuition and universal child care. And while it isn’t clear how these will be funded, they have endeared him to younger voters, among whom he enjoys a massive advantage in the polls. He may have a history of radicalism and support for terrorist groups. But for many young voters who are being exposed to him for the first time, he comes across as a friendly and accessible figure – so unlike the prime minister. Corbyn has succeeded in surprising even some of his most ardent supporters by looking prime ministerial.
Not everyone who will vote for Labour on Thursday supports Corbyn. A large number of Labour voters are convinced he will lose anyway, but they don’t want May’s Conservatives to enjoy a massive majority in the next parliament. Some are just voting to keep their favorite local MP in his or her job.
Polls carried out after the attacks didn’t show a discernible change in the trends; the gap continued closing. This may seem surprising, but in many ways the attacks only reinforced the public’s negative views of both candidates. Those who were starting to see May as a hesitant and inept leader – as she seemed during the manifesto debacle, before the May 22 Manchester attack – only received more ammunition as the cuts she carried out within the police force while serving as home secretary became a campaign issue. And those who already regarded Corbyn as a terrorist sympathizer were only strengthened by the attacks not to vote for him.
A Corbyn victory will still be a major surprise Thursday. Every single poll predicts that the Conservatives will be the largest party. The Tories have one major advantage going into the election: the 13 percent of voters who chose the far-right UK Independence Party in 2015 have little reason to do so this time around. UKIP’s main policy of leaving the EU is already happening, so most UKIP voters are expected to switch to the Conservatives. In the British first-past-the-post constituency electoral system, it should be enough both to preserve the party’s existing seats and provide it with the majority to win at least some marginal Labour seats.
Labour’s advantage – its overwhelming support among young voters – is less tangible. Like most countries, turnout among young Britons is historically low. Only 42 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 2015 election. For the party to have any hope of depriving May of a majority, it will need double the number of young voters to go to the polls.
In the space of seven years, Britain will have had three general elections (2010, 2015, 2017) and three referenda (changing the voting system in 2011; the Scots voting on independence in 2014; and Brexit in 2016). That’s a lot of democracy, and this is the fourth summer running with a major election taking place. For many Britons, it has felt like one relentless campaign. The Conservatives hoped Thursday’s general election would be just a follow-up to the EU referendum, and that May would swiftly and decisively be crowned the Brexit queen. Instead, it has become a confidence vote on her leadership.
In an accidental election between two accidental candidates, it seems that if a more centrist politician was leading Labour, May would be done for. And if any other Conservative running a semi-decent campaign was facing Corbyn, he would be toast.