A UK election in the time of terror

Theresa May’s popularity has taken a knocking since she announced the election and it’s a moot point whether the three terror attacks in the UK help her cause

Written by S Y Quraishi | Published:June 7, 2017 8:12 am
Theresa May, UK General Elections, London terror attack, Brexit Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during a General Election campaign visit to Clockwork Removals and Storage in Edinburgh. (AP/PTI Photo)

UK’s midterm poll on June 8 is historic in more ways than one. It will decide the fate of Prime Minister Theresa May’s great gamble to seek her own majority instead of what she inherited from predecessor David Cameron, as well as decide the shape of the impending Brexit negotiations. It also marks the death knell of a historic Act passed only 6 years ago, giving the House of Commons a fixed five-year term and a fixed date for its election (May 5, every five years). As per the Act, the next election should have been held only on May 5, 2020.

But on April 18, Theresa May announced her decision to dissolve the House and seek a fresh mandate. Although the Fixed-Term Parliament Act remains on the statute books, it was over-ridden on this occasion by an overwhelming majority; unsurprisingly, neither Opposition party wanted to lose the opportunity to fight an election to unseat the government.

In effect, the PM of the day can now call an early election at will (like before), which makes a mockery of the Act. After the 2015 election, in an article in the ‘Indian Express’ I had asked what would happen to the fixed term in the event of a snap poll. Even I had not visualised it would happen so soon.

At the time of the announcement of the snap poll, I was in London. I asked a number of people their opinion. Almost everyone was against Brexit. In that case she would lose, I ruminated. But many also pointed out that Theresa May could still win because her alternative, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, was perceived as untrustworthy. The dislike for a potential leader far outweighed the dislike for a more consequential Brexit !

The decision to call a general election must have made sense at the time. May inherited a House of Commons majority of just 12 MPs when David Cameron stood down after the ‘Brexit’ vote. Even a tiny rebellion among her lawmakers had the potential of ruining policy and put Brexit negotiations at risk.

Fired by the need for a bigger majority and a personal mandate in mid-April — which would allow her to overcome the opposition to her plans for a “hard Brexit”, whereby the country would not only leave the European Union but also the bloc’s lucrative single market — May seemed buoyed by her comfortable lead of 21% over Labour. By May 25, according to a YouGov survey, Labour had slashed the Conservatives’ lead to five points; by May 31 it had fallen to just three points, with Labour polling 39% against Conservatives 42%.

What led to this dramatic decline? Theresa May’s overconfidence in Labour disunity, a manifesto “full of harsh and draconian policies” especially over social security issues and an unfortunately underestimation of Corbyn’s crowd-pulling ability, are some reasons. Clearly, she had banked on Corbyn’s unpopularity among his own lawmakers a wee bit too much — on issues such as scrapping the nuclear deterrent as well as his apparent closeness to certain terrorist organisations, like Hamas.

The contrast became especially acute after the terrorist attack in Manchester on May 22, when May accused Corbyn of blaming the attack on UK’s foreign policy in the Middle East. But apart from the fact that Corbyn proved unable to put a cost on Labour’s plans to offer free childcare to two-year-olds during a radio interview, he ran a smooth election campaign. His far-left electoral promises of re-nationalizing key industries, imposing high taxes on the rich and increasing social spending are resonating with large parts of the electorate — with young voters in particular.

“Jeremy Corbyn has surpassed people’s expectations, which were very low,” says a senior Labour politician. “Given airtime, people have realised he’s not so bad.”

So what has been the impact of the three terror attacks on London and in the rest of the country in recent weeks? Besides a day’s suspension of the campaigning, the impact on parties has been mixed. The Tories, perhaps, stand to gain, because of their hard stand on terrorism. But as the party in power, their failure to prevent the attacks weighs against them. Many feel the election should be postponed. That is, however, not possible as only Parliament can approve the change of date and it has been dissolved  unless May declares a full blown Emergency, which is not the case.

May started this election as a strong favorite. She became prime minister barely a year ago and is still in something of a honeymoon period with the voters. Second, she hasn’t made any obvious major public mistakes. Third, Jeremy Corbyn isn’t widely popular within his own party. And, as an analyst remarked, it’s pretty much “the iron law” of British Elections that divided parties do not win general elections.

In the first couple of weeks after she announced the elections, some asked whether the Conservatives were going to win big or very, very big. But during the campaign trail, May has come out weaker than expected, delivering unscripted, unrehearsed interviews with experienced political journalists.

Corbyn, on the other hand, has proven to be rather more adept on the campaign trail. The terror attacks may have actually helped him. His attacks against the Conservatives, accusing them of making Britain more vulnerable by cutting funding for police and security services, have hit home.

So what’s going to be the result?

Truth is, even in the 2015 polls, pollsters failed to predict David Cameron’s unexpectedly strong victory; as for Brexit, they were completely confused about that referendum. In this election, some foresee a hung Parliament, while others have given both Corbyn and May a vote too close to call. No one is willing to predict an outright victory for either.

Much will depend on voter turnout. A member of May’s government admitted that Labour “always turns out its core vote, but the Conservatives may not always.” The younger voter definitely leans toward Jeremy Labour. If they do turn out to vote, Theresa May may be in big trouble.

All eyes are now focused on May 8. Will Prime Minister Theresa May win a resounding election victory, scrape home with her authority in tatters, or lose outright? As always, the voter knows best. Twenty-four hours from now, we will know what she thinks.

SY Quraishi is former Chief Election Commissioner and the author of ‘An Undocumented Wonder - The Making of the Great Indian Election.’

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