UK poll: Corbyn’s rise, terror attacks rattle PM Theresa May’s ‘Brexit election’
Opinion polls, ahead of June 8 general election in UK, show that the gap between PM Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been narrowing by the hour .world Updated: Jun 07, 2017 21:57 IST
It is easy to forget amid the terror attacks in Manchester and London that Thursday’s mid-term election was supposed to be a “Brexit election” – Prime Minister Theresa May has been struggling to retain the focus, but it has gone way beyond – and it shows in her ennui.
Harold Wilson famously remarked that a week is a long time in politics, but it has been seven weeks since May stood in front of 10, Downing Street, and shocked many by announcing the election intended to steamroll opposition to her version of Brexit with a clear mandate.
In mid-April, a massive win for the Conservatives and May was assumed. Few believed Labour and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, would pose any challenge to May’s juggernaut – the only point of interest was how big a majority it would be.
Three things have since then have changed perceptions: terror attacks in Manchester and London, and the remarkable rise of Corbyn, who was supposed to be a disaster and unfit for politics in the age of television.
Opinion polls, such as they are, have swung. The gap between the two has been narrowing by the hour to the point that even Corbyn’s critics in his party now concede that there is a reasonable chance of emerging as the single largest party, if not an outright win.
A meme soon went viral: “June will be the end of May.”
Rise of Corbyn
The last few weeks have seen Corbyn shrewdly change the terms of campaign discourse beyond Brexit, to more sensitive issues such as health, education, social care – and the most effective of all, the rise in the number of ‘food banks’ in the country under Tory rule (food banks are where people who cannot afford to buy food go for free food).
Labour’s manifesto took the challenge further by pitching it “For the many. Not the Few”; the few, Corbyn repeatedly pointed out, were the rich and the very rich, for whom the Conservative government had reduced taxes, ignoring the plight of the masses of poor.
The manifesto struck a chord, particularly the promise to re-nationalise public services, to borrow more to increase investment and abolish tuition fees in higher education (currently met by student loans). Young voters who face over 40,000 pounds of debt on completing degree courses have flocked to him.
The more Corbyn appeared on television, the more people liked him: sober, reasonable, focussed on cutting poverty, refusing to indulge in personal attacks, and with a sense of humour. He deftly swatted away criticism about his record on Irish nationalists, Hamas and opposition to the Trident nuclear missile.
May on backfoot
In contrast, May has been on the backfoot, having to defend her record on security after the two terror attacks – she was the home secretary for six years before becoming the prime minister in 2016. She has also been forced to explain her record on other sensitive issues.
The real story of Thursday’s election is thus not the Conservative Party winning – that remains the most expected outcome, despite Labour’s resurgence. The key point is the margin of victory: anything less than a big increase will be seen as her personal defeat and the election gamble backfiring.
May had a slender majority of six seats in the last parliament: Conservatives had 331 MPs in a House of Commons with 650 seats – 326 is the majority mark. Every Tory leaflet highlights this fact and how a large majority is needed to get a good Brexit deal.
“If I lose just six seats on Thursday, my government’s majority in the House of Commons will be gone, and our country will face the chaos of a hung parliament,” May cautions voters in a series of letters posted to them by name.
If Labour emerges as the single largest party and goes on to form a minority government with support from the Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and others, calling the mid-term election will spell nothing less than an historic blunder for May – the next election was not due before 2020.
May has had a hard time explaining to voters what she really means by “Brexit means Brexit” and “no deal is better than a bad deal”, with none the wiser after long answers. Selling the “Making a success of Brexit” line has also been tough, when nearly half of UK did not want it.
An oft-ignored fact in the cut-and-thrust of campaigning is the weariness about another round of voting across the United Kingdom – which some say is now a dis-United Kingdom after the 52/48 per cent ‘Out/In EU’ vote in the June 2016 EU referendum.
Thursday is the fourth major round of voting (not counting local elections) in three years, after the Scotland independence referendum in 2014, the general election of 2015 and the EU referendum of 2016. But Corbyn’s rise appears to have helped shed some of that weariness and cynicism among voters.
As European leaders look on in some amusement at the UK going through an election on the issue of Brexit, many insist this is an unnecessary election, one that may deepen – not resolve – divisions on an issue that is supposed to determine the way the UK sees itself in future outside the EU and the way the world sees its place on the international stage.