At the outset of this general election campaign one thing seemed clear: Labour would get everything they deserved but, alas, the Tories would not. That is, Jeremy Corbyn would lead Labour to a thoroughly-merited disaster and Theresa May would gain an ill-deserved, but whopping, victory.
Well that was then and this is now as it looks, at least for the moment, as though this scenario could be reversed. The Tories, enduring a stinker of a campaign, may be punished just as thoroughly as they deserve to be but, if that is the judgement of the British people, it also requires voters to treat Labour with a gentle indulgence the party does not merit.
Which is, I suppose, another way of noting that neither party presently inspires much confidence and that the choice between Mrs May and Mr Corbyn is between the unpalatable and the unacceptable. Mrs May will return to Downing Street but unless her victory is significant, she will do so as damaged goods. And even if she does win a handsome victory, the memory of this shambolic, desperately poor, campaign will endure. If the bloom was ever on Theresa May, it’s off now.
Indeed, much though the comparison dismays her closest advisors, May increasingly resembles a Tory version of Gordon Brown. All new prime ministers, of course, define themselves against their predecessor but the manner in which May and Brown did so bears some uncanny resemblances.
In contrast to super and suspiciously smooth Blair and Cameron, May and Brown would make a virtue of their rough edges. “Not Flash, Just Gordon” the Labour party promised; a “bloody difficult woman” boasted the Conservatives. What you see is what you get and what you get is a no-nonsense premier ready to up-roll their sleeves and get down to the hard work of confronting the large and difficult problems the country faces. Glumness would be a virtue and a proof of valuable “authenticity”. The spin was that spin-free politicians were replacing politicians too fond by far of spin. There’d be no more clever-clever stuff, you know, just honest toil. Flashy metropolitan chilling was out, to be replaced by a measure of moral rectitude. A vicar’s daughter can be just as preachy as a son of the manse, after all.
Which is fine and it can work for a while but, in the end, voters want something more than a Gradgrind prime minister; they want a measure of inspiration, comfort, and even hope. It has become disagreeably clear during this election that Mrs May has little chance of offering anything of the sort. She made a virtue of confronting “big challenges” in the Tory manifesto, as though “facing-up” to those future difficulties should be thought enough to earn you credit. A preparedness to do so, however, might be thought the entry-level qualification for any aspiring prime minister.
Just as Brown discovered that even a decade in Number 11 was insufficient preparation for life at Number 10, so May might now appreciate that her long years at the Home Office failed to prepare her sufficiently for the vastly greater scrutiny that comes with life in the top job.
And, just as Brown became prime minister without having to be tested in a leadership election, so May took office without enduring the trials of a proper contest herself. It was not her fault that her rivals killed one another and then themselves until such a point that May was the last candidate standing, but it has added to the vague but keen sense she is an accidental prime minister.
She has certainly campaigned like someone not ready for prime time. I cannot recall a more dismal performance by a would-be prime minister than May’s encounter with Andrew Neil. In a full half hour interview, I am not sure she answered a single question convincingly.
No wonder she has, as much as possible, declined to subject herself to the glare of public scrutiny. The televised debates may be a sardonic interpretation of what “debate” actually means but if every other party leader is prepared to endure them, it’s reasonable to expect the Conservative leader to do so too. Instead she looks frit and, worse, offers transparently daft reasons for not taking part. Rather than face the voters, Mrs May is too busy doing her Brexit homework. Please, come on. And, actually, come off it too.
Not that she will tell us what that homework consists of either. Can’t have the continentals getting a peek at her hand, you know, even though they know that she knows that they know that she doesn’t hold a very good hand. But no matter, you can’t have Brexit unless you believe in Brexit says May, evidently trusting that some people will forget that this time last year she didn’t believe in Brexit either. But that, I suppose, was then.
Previous snap elections have not always gone well for the prime ministers that called them, possibly because voters resent being asked to make a choice that has been forced upon them when there was no obvious reason the choice had to be made at that moment. They suspect, often with good reason, that the governing party must be hiding something from them and that something is not likely to be anything good.
Just as Brown was, at least in part, defined by an election he did not call so May seems increasingly likely, as matters stand, to be defined by an election she did. On the occasions she has met journalists and voters, she has talked in nothing but platitudes. So much so, in fact, that you begin to wonder if she suffers some pathological aversion to answering questions. She’s like Brown, but without Gordon’s social graces and breezy joie de vivre. It has been a remarkable thing to witness.
Still, thank heavens for the fundamentals, eh? I cannot see how the Tories can lose this election, though they’ve given it a good effort. When push comes to shove, I still believe voters will shrink back from the brink and decline to endorse the Labour party of Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott and Thornberry. But that we are even having this conversation is evidence of how, perhaps against expectation, the Tories have misjudged the public mood.
May will win but even as she wins she will lose, emerging from this election a diminished figure even if she enjoys a greater majority than that with which she began the campaign. But she will be remembered as the prime minister who was rattled by Jeremy bleedin’ Corbyn. Which, if there was ever any doubt about this, is also why this will be Mrs May’s last election as Tory leader. And that, in turn, means the countdown has begun to the moment when her successor is chosen. The election, far from securing May’s position, seems likely to weaken it.
Heckuva job, Theresa.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.