It was in a fit of overconfidence that British Prime Minister Theresa May announced a snap general election. Opposition Labour was in a shambles, inflation and unemployment were under control and voters, though passive, were not hostile. She needed a big public mandate to strengthen her moral authority at the Brexit negotiations. She thought it would be a walkover. She was wrong.
At the start of the campaign, the Conservatives had a 20-point lead over Labour; this has now shrunk to 5 or 6 points — maybe even 3, according to a couple of polls. In 2015, the Tories got an overall majority of 12, with a 7-point lead. Pundits say if the lead falls to under 6 points, May might well lose majority.
If the polls are proved right in Thursday’s election, we might witness a spectacular political upheaval — a weak coalition government negotiating Brexit with unhelpful EU leaders.
Labour is even beginning to entertain the improbable dream of a surprise victory. In doorstep conversations, volunteers are telling voters that Jeremy Corbyn could trump May. Remember how Donald Trump demolished Hillary Clinton’s virtually unassailable 12-point lead, they are arguing.
Labour’s 68-year-old leader is quite the unusual politician. A gentle figure who rides a bicycle and doesn’t own a car, he often appears in Parliament wearing badly designed brown and beige jackets. Corbyn has also had a long history of defying conventional British wisdom, and of voting against his own party when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were in power.
He has promised to reverse austerity cuts, restore social welfare funding, renationalise public utilities and the railways, and support unilateral nuclear disarmament. But he has few ideas on how he would fund these commitments. The Sun, a passionately pro-Tory, Rupert Murdoch newspaper, published a photoshopped image of a tree covered in £ 10 notes with a headline that screamed, “Corbyn’s magic money tree will cost families extra £ 3.5K-a-year”.
Prime Minister May isn’t having an easy ride either. She seemed on track for a huge victory until she announced what is now being derided as the “Dementia Tax”. The Tory manifesto included a proposal that anyone who received medical care in their own home would have to pay for it through the value of their home once they were no more. According to the plan, the entire value of a person’s home, apart from the first £ 100,000, would be claimed by the government.
It shocked elderly voters, particularly Asian voters. They would not be able to leave anything more than £ 100,000 for their children. 48% of Britain’s elderly vote Conservative; they were dismayed. Richard Wilson, famous for playing crazy old Victor Meldrew in the BBC comedy One Foot in the Grave, called the proposal a “complete disgrace” and urged pensioners not to vote Tory.
The terror attacks in London and Manchester have added to May’s problems. There is anger and worry in the air — Friday night revelers in clubs, bars and restaurants are dazed; tourists are frightened when they see a van nearby. School have postponed visits to museums and galleries, and 5,000 armed soldiers are on duty in various cities. It hasn’t helped that several of the terrorists have been revealed to have been known to security agencies.
One of the London Bridge terrorists, Youssef Zaghba, was stopped in Italy while on his way to Syria. He told the immigration officers, “I am going to be a terrorist.” Pakistan-born Khurram Butt was seen in a Channel 4 documentary, Jihadis Next Door, abusing a moderate Muslim community leader as a “murtad”, or traitor.
MI5, the UK’s domestic intelligence agency, has a watchlist of more than 23,000 individuals, with 3,000 radical Islamists classified as “subjects of interest”. According to one estimate, approximately 850 Britons have been to fight in Syria, and almost half of them have returned. It is a difficult and delicate challenge to identify potential terrorists in the Muslim ghettoes of Bradford, Birmingham, Luton and London without tarring the entire community.
May, who likes to paint Corbyn as being soft on terror, has announced that she is prepared to change Britain’s human rights laws to make it easier to deport foreign terror suspects. She has also proposed longer prison terms and increased travel restrictions. Corbyn has responded that terrorism would not be beaten by “ripping up our basic rights and our democracy”.
But Corbyn is on shaky ground here. After the Manchester attack, he said that British foreign policy was partly responsible, and the “war on terror is simply not working”. His opponents blamed him for exploiting the tragedy, Home Secretary Amber Rudd called the comments “outrageous”, and Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said it was unwise to link the Iraq, Afghanistan and Syrian wars to the Manchester attack.
And that is Jeremy Corbyn’s problem. Throughout his career, he has taken positions against accepted political wisdom. His stance on nuclear disarmament, universal human rights and unlimited funding for social welfare may have been morally strong, but is politically impractical.
May may yet win, but opinion polls suggest she is dangerously close to losing her majority. Had Corbyn done better homework on his health and education plans, it might have been easier for him to convince the electorate. Most British voters are fed up with unending Tory austerity cuts, but they understand that money does not grow on trees. At one end is hope, on the other, stark reality. In post-Brexit Britain, anyone could win.