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Coffee House General Election 2017

Theresa May is failing to learn from Gordon Brown’s mistakes

One of the truisms that has emerged from this election is that maybe Gordon Brown was right to veer away from calling an early election after all. Pursuing a snap election turned out to be a grave error for Theresa May, and so perhaps the Labour Prime Minister was wiser than everyone gave him credit for at the time.

But while this may seem obviously true, what has actually happened is that May has confirmed her similarity to Brown. The latest YouGov polling on May’s personal ratings reminds us that both reaped a severe punishment for going anywhere near an early poll, regardless of whether they followed through and held the election. Theresa May is now where Jeremy Corbyn was last November in term of favourability, with the Tory leader on -34 (Corbyn was on -35 last November), and the Labour leader now on 0, which means voters are equally divided between favourable and unfavourable views. 

This is a dramatic turnaround for both party leaders. For May, it mirrors the honeymoon that Gordon Brown enjoyed after taking over as Prime Minister – and the subsequent crash in poll ratings after he prevaricated over whether to hold an election. When he succeeded Tony Blair, Brown was able to brand himself as a breath of fresh air, someone serious and concerned with the detail, not the PR. May did the same after Cameron, impressing everyone with her focus on how government worked and her insistence on ministers working hard on the proper details of a policy. She started her election campaign as the woman who got things done, but then voters realised that she didn’t quite seem to be the woman they thought she was. Brown similarly revealed himself to have flaws that the public hadn’t initially been aware of. He never recovered from the drop in personal ratings that his 2007 mistake precipitated. Perhaps May won’t recover from the dramatic plummet in her own polling, either, given the greater humiliation of pursuing the election and losing seats, her majority, and her authority.

The Spectator was the first to suggest that May might end up being a rather similar leader in style to Brown. There are reports today that she also limited plans for the social care announcement that so damaged her during the election to a tiny coterie of trusted advisers, not even telling the Secretaries of State charged with delivering the policy, Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt, until the day before. This secrecy over policy plans is a classic Brown approach which won him few allies. It has been even more catastrophic for May.

Perhaps May learned a lesson from Brown’s early election fiasco, which was that if you’re thinking of calling a snap poll, you need to keep totally quiet about it rather than making all the noise that Labour did back in 2007, and then just announce it and go to the country. But perhaps the better lesson from it would have been to conclude that going anywhere near an early election is seriously dangerous for your party and your leadership. 

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