General Election 2017 - Theresa May's credibility crisis

Written by Tom Freeman on 19 June 2017 in Inside Politics

Theresa May’s lesson in how to turn victory into chaos, Ruth Davidson's dominance and Jeremy Corbyn's improbable fightback characterised the 2017 election

General election 2017 - PA 

Great expectations

“Let’s get to work,” said Theresa May, before turning into 10 Downing Street.

She had paid the usual post-election visit to the Queen, returned to the prime-ministerial residence and delivered a traditional speech promising “certainty” for the next five years.

It was a determinedly simple and practical speech, a signal of intent by a newly elected prime minister.

“I will now form a government,” she said. “A government that can provide certainty and lead Britain forward at this critical time for this country.”

Except to most people watching, including some in her own party, it was an uncomfortable and improbable spectacle. 

For May had held an election with the stated purpose of increasing her majority and she had failed. There was nothing traditional about it.


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In fact, after a campaign in which she had avoided television appearances and debates, refused to meet voters and produced an uncosted manifesto of unpopular policies, she had lost her majority.

It was the most rapid and dramatic political collapse in living memory. 

Listening to her speech, it was as if none of it had happened.

Announcing the election, May was so confident of increasing her majority she clearly did not feel the need to campaign.

She believed the repeated use of the words ‘strong and stable’ and a few cheap shots about her rival would be enough to secure the victory she wanted.

But the campaign was to prove a far bumpier ride than she could have imagined.

Two terrorist incidents disrupted the narrative, with campaigns suspended in the immediate aftermath of attacks on Manchester and London which claimed the lives of 29 people.

Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn started to get a warmer response than even his own party had predicted, drawing large crowds to his constituency visits and exposing May’s reluctance to meet the public or engage in TV debates.

And as the press began to ask questions about May’s policy framework, her priorities for Brexit and even her campaigning style, she began to stutter, laugh nervously and lose her cool. The reactions were notable because she had the words ‘strong and stable’ above her head.

May was left looking anything but strong and stable, and the decision to call the election in the first place began to look like incalculable folly.

Jeremy Corbyn was to lead Labour to its largest share of the vote since Tony Blair’s 2001 result, and the party’s biggest rise in share of the vote since 1945 – from 30.4 per cent in 2015 to 40.3 per cent in 2017.

Left with eight seats short of an overall majority, May entered Buckingham Palace claiming an agreement with Ulster’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) would enable her to govern a minority. 
The DUP later confirmed no deal had yet been struck. 

By Saturday, Number 10 announced a “confidence and supply” agreement had been reached. The DUP again said talks had not been finalised. The Queen’s Speech, for the first time in history, was delayed. This was initially and bizarrely blamed on the time it takes to cure a goatskin for the speech to be written on.

It was starting to look like the “coalition of chaos” May had warned Corbyn would lead.

George Osborne, the chancellor May had sacked when she took the leadership of the country unopposed, said she was a “dead woman walking”.

By Monday, May had apologised to Tory MPs, accepting personal responsibility for the result.

She had won the election but lost the support of her party, the confidence of the electorate and the mandate she so desperately wanted to take into Brexit talks, negotiations she had framed as an antagonistic defence from those who make “threats against Britain”.

Brexit would prove to be May’s other great miscalculation. She had pitched for the UKIP vote by adopting a hard-line tone towards Europe, even going as far as threatening “no deal is better than a bad deal”, implying Britain was prepared to walk away from negotiations with absolutely no arrangements in place for trade, aviation, movement of people, research funding and other reciprocal arrangements. 

She responded to the terror attack in London by suggesting restrictions on human rights.

It proved too much for some Conservatives who had voted against Brexit in the first place, with constituencies nursing Remain hangovers recording an average swing to Labour of seven per cent.

Some newspapers bemoaned the fact just 786 votes in key marginals would have swung the election in May’s favour, but Canterbury, held by the Conservatives for 176 years, and Kensington for the first time, elected Labour MPs.

For the second general election in a row, the pollsters had got it wrong. Although polls suggested most people across the UK didn’t want austerity, a hard Brexit, fox hunting or private healthcare, they also suggested they would vote for it anyway. 

While Labour increased its ratings throughout the campaign, Theresa May’s uncertainty and policy positions had not seen the Conservatives drop below the level they had started the campaign on.

Only an ongoing seat-by-seat predictor by YouGov and a late poll by Survation predicted a hung parliament, while other pollsters were caught by adjustments they made after 2015 polls proved too optimistic for Labour. 

Some of the major firms had admitted Labour’s polling in 2015 had been inflated by young people who tended not to turn out to vote. In 2017, it seems those young people did turn out. 

Rumours of a high turnout among young people were not backed up by official data, but eyewitness accounts told of long lines of students at polling stations.

In an apparent attempt to rally the parliamentary party around the beleaguered May, Boris Johnson claimed the Conservatives had won more votes than any party since Margaret Thatcher was at the helm. 

He was wrong. The party had won 13.7m votes, short of John Major’s 14.09m in 1992.

But the combined vote share of the two main parties was the highest in any general election since 1970, at 82.4 per cent. Two-party politics appeared to be back. 

Apart, of course, for viewers in Scotland.

Union fightback

It was almost as though Scotland had an entirely different election from the rest of the country. 

May had interpreted a narrow majority in the EU referendum in the most extreme terms, including threats to cease cooperating with European neighbours.

In doing so, she should have presented Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson with a very difficult election indeed.

Not only had Scotland voted Remain in the EU referendum, Davidson herself had been one of the most prominent and vocal Tory advocates. 

Added to this, the impact of UK welfare reform had hit Scotland disproportionately, with measures such as the ‘rape clause’ in a new two-child limit on tax credits playing particularly badly.

Instead, however, Davidson controlled the narrative in Scotland and the return of 13 Scottish Conservative MPs bucked the national trend and gave her a powerful voice in its aftermath.
It was the best general election result for her party in Scotland since 1983.

She had achieved the result through a single-issue agenda which had proved very fruitful in both the 2016 Holyrood election and in the local government election earlier in the year, one which cast her and her party as the staunchest defenders of the Union.

“We need to send Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP a message they can’t ignore,” Conservative election literature said, “that Scotland doesn’t need or want another independence referendum.”

It was a line parroted almost word-for-word by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats north of the border, recognising that tactical voting could damage the SNP’s formidable dominance of the map in 2015, when the party had won 56 of Scotland’s 59 MPs.

Instead of being a judgement on the Conservatives’ record in government and Brexit, the election became about the SNP’s record in government at Holyrood, and an opportunity for unionists to express frustration with the plan to hold a second referendum on independence when the terms of Brexit become clear.

The message, as it turned out, couldn’t be ignored. In the aftermath of the election, Nicola Sturgeon conceded that indyref2 had played a part in SNP losses.

The loss of 21 seats included Sturgeon’s mentor and former First Minister Alex Salmond in Gordon and the party’s deputy leader and Commons leader Angus Robertson in Moray.
“Traditionally in Westminster elections the SNP is squeezed by the two main UK parties,” said Sturgeon. 

“Indeed, in this campaign we have seen the return of a dominant two-party system in England. This makes the SNP’s achievement of winning a clear majority of seats in Scotland all the more remarkable. 

“However, as we do after all elections, we will reflect on these results, we will listen to voters and we will consider very carefully the best way forward for Scotland, a way forward that is in the interests of all Scotland.”

Davidson hit back. “We have heard the First Minister say she will ‘reflect’ on the matter. I’m afraid that’s not enough,” she said.

“Let me be clear: nobody, not me, not anyone, is expecting the SNP to give up on independence. That is what it believes in and it is a perfectly honourable position to take. What people do expect is that, right now, the SNP gives Scotland a break. Simply put, Scotland has had its fill.

“We need to focus on the challenges we face on education, on NHS funding, on the new tax and welfare powers – as well as the huge challenge of Brexit.

“Nobody will condemn the First Minister if she now decides to reset her course. This is her opportunity to do so – and I urge her to take it immediately. She must take it off the table.”

SNP figures lined up to make a similar suggestion. Former health secretary Alex Neil said even pro-independence supporters didn’t think a referendum was “a top priority” at the moment.

“My view is we got it round the wrong way slightly. I think what we should be doing is building up support for independence, and once we are sure at least half of the population are supportive of independence, that’s the time to have a referendum,” he told the Daily Record.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats also won seats from the SNP at the election, with former Lib Dem cabinet minister Jo Swinson reclaiming her old seat of East Dunbartonshire from John Nicholson, as one of four Scots Lib Dem MPs.

“I recognise all of those who put party allegiance to one side to send a clear message that East Dunbartonshire does not want another divisive independence referendum,” Swinson said.

Labour, meanwhile, exceeded even its own expectations by returning seven MPs from Scotland. Six newcomers joined Edinburgh South’s Ian Murray, including relative youngsters Paul Sweeney in Glasgow North East, Gerard Killen in Rutherglen and Hamilton West and Danielle Rowley in Midlothian.

There was a suggestion, though, that the success may not have been exclusively down to anti-SNP tactical voting.

During the campaign, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale told Sky News: “The reality is the vast majority of seats across Scotland, it’s only the Labour Party that can beat the SNP.

“There are a few differences in the Borders and the Highlands where the Tories might be better placed but right across Scotland’s centre belt, where the vast majority of Scotland’s population lives, the only party that can beat the SNP is the Labour Party.”

But in East Renfrewshire, where the party had selected high-profile Better Together chief Blair McDougall, it had only achieved third place.

In fact, despite Dugdale telling Sky she rated Labour’s national campaign a “six or seven” out of ten, the publication of the Labour manifesto coincided with the first upward trend in Labour polling in Scotland for many years.

In one YouGov poll for The Times, Labour had risen to 41 per cent among 18-24 year olds in Scotland, a point ahead of the SNP.

Nicola Sturgeon conceded the SNP had also been a victim of “a surge towards Jeremy Corbyn” in the final days of the campaign.

JC’s resurrection

Scottish Labour’s rise in the polls, from 13 per cent in April to 27 per cent on election day, was echoed across the UK. It was humiliating for those who had spent the best part of 18 months decrying and trying to oust the Labour leader as ‘unelectable.’

Among those was Ian Murray, who had resigned from Labour’s front bench ahead of the failed mutiny last summer which had led to Corbyn consolidating his position. 

“I think Jeremy Corbyn has to look at himself seriously in the mirror and see if he sees himself walking down Downing Street as being Prime Minister,” Murray said at the time.

Murray increased his majority in Edinburgh South from 2,637 to 15,514. He did not then return to the front bench.

Some other former detractors of Corbyn congratulated the man who defied their expectations.

Blairite strategist Lord Mandelson said he had been “wrong” about the Labour leader, having admitted to “working every day” to bring him down earlier this year.

“I was wrong. I am very surprised, an earthquake has happened in British politics and I did not foresee it,” he said.

Owen Smith, who stood against Corbyn for the top job as part of the PLP coup, said: “I was clearly wrong in feeling that Jeremy wouldn’t be able to do this well. And I think he’s proved me wrong and lots of people wrong and I take my hat off. I don’t know what Jeremy’s got but if we could bottle it and drink it, we’d all be doing very well.”

Corbyn’s predecessor, Ed Miliband, who had also called for his resignation in the wake of the EU referendum, tweeted: “Congratulations to @jeremycorbyn for his inspired campaign. He showed people a vision of a fairer society and millions voted for change.”

Former deputy leader, Harriet Harman, said this meant those who had refused to serve under Corbyn would now be happy to take positions behind him. Indeed, Smith was appointed Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary days later.

“We were expecting the Tories to lay waste to us. Instead it turned around and we have come back coherent, united,” Harman told Radio Four.

“The atmosphere is verging from on one hand relief to jubilant, and the Tories are in disarray. And Jeremy Corbyn has to take the credit for that, because he was the leader and he’s gone forward.”

The Labour manifesto seemed to have caught the narrative in the campaign, with its more radical elements like nationalisation of railways leaked before the actual document, catching the attention of journalists deprived of anything to write about in Theresa May’s campaign.

It paved the way for a more positive campaign than Labour is normally afforded.

There were also decisive tactical moves, like Corbyn choosing the morning of the television debate to announce he would turn up, leaving May in a situation she couldn’t win.
There were also appearances by Corbyn on the cover of music magazines NME and Kerrang!

But perhaps what was more marked in the campaign was the sight of crowds of thousands of people gathering to hear Corbyn speak, engaged by social media and engaging with the leader in person.

It made a stark contrast with Theresa May’s small stage-managed events with selected supporters in what appeared to be empty warehouses.

Labour’s momentum continued after the election. In the first post-election poll, Survation, which had provided the most accurate poll before the election, put Labour on 44.8 per cent of the vote, compared to 38.9 per cent for the Conservatives.

If the election campaign had been a normal length, would Labour have won? 

Voices of caution within Labour point out the party still lost, but with the possibility of another election looming, the party is boosted by increased membership and small donations.

The BBC’s Andrew Marr asked if the Labour leader, once the most unpopular opposition leader in the history of polling, was now in it for the long term.

“Look at me,” Corbyn replied. “I’ve got youth on my side.” 

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