The UK Election Just Got Interesting

When Theresa May called a snap election for 8 June, the reasons seemed obvious. With the economic slowdown that was anticipated after the country voted to leave the European Union last year now beginning, and with negotiations over Brexit expected to be tough and to possibly worsen short-term economic conditions, the risk was that sentiment would turn against Brexit right about the time she had to return to the polls, in 2019. Since her Conservatives enjoyed a massive poll lead over the opposition Labour Party, it seemed an opportune time to gain a strong mandate from the electorate, boosting her majority and securing a clear run through to the election.

The strategy for victory was clear. With Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn widely seen as a left-wing loon, all she had to do was repeatedly promise ‘strong and stable’ leadership to remind Britons that they didn’t want him in Downing Street. Unfortunately for her, things didn’t go to plan.

First off, the Labour manifesto turned out to strike a lot of positive chords with the British electorate. On the campaign trail, Mr Corbyn has so far failed to fulfill Tory expectations to repeatedly inflict wounds on himself and his party. Meanwhile, the Tory manifesto launch was so badly-done it seemed to belie Mrs May’s reputation for strong and stable leadership. Several of its proposals – scrapping the triple-lock on pensions, means-testing winter fuel subsidies for the elderly, and shifting the burden of care for some elderly patients from the state onto their families – proved unpopular with one of the Tories’ key constituencies, older voters. In the last case, Mrs May scrapped the plan within days of its launch when it became apparent even her own party disliked it. Immediately, wags began to ask if this is how she’ll handle Brexit negotiations as well: strong and stable leadership, followed almost at once by waffling and a change of heart.

Polls have been showing a steady narrowing of the gap between the Tories and Labour, and over the weekend the gap between the two parties moved into the single digits. In itself, this needn’t worry Tories, since the margin is still more than large enough to deliver them an increased majority were an election held today. What does worry them is that the election isn’t being held today, it’s being held next week. Should this narrowing trend continue, the election could conceivably become competitive in a way that looked unimaginable just a few weeks ago.

There’s a wild card that can affect the outcome, but which nobody can predict. The rule of thumb in Britain, as in most Western countries, is that older people turn out to vote in much larger numbers than first-time voters. Given that Labour enjoys a twenty-point lead over the Conservatives in support among first-time voters, if this rule holds once more, the Conservative poll lead will be magnified by actual turnout on polling day. All this narrowing of the polls will then be much ado about nothing.

However, it is just possible that things will get upended this time around. It’s clear that pensioners haven’t been excited by Theresa May in the way young voters have by Jeremy Corbyn. There has been a surge in registrations by first-time voters compared to both the last election and the Brexit referendum. ‘Bregret’ may not yet have sunk into the Leave constituency since the referendum. But with the economic news now getting bad, and likely to stay that way, that is likely to change. I predicted early this year that the British economy would start slowing just as the European economy picked up speed, confounding the Brexiteers’ narrative that Europe was holding Britain back. That’s now come to pass. If older voters and Brexiteers feel marginally less enthusaistic about voting than they did last June, whereas first-time voters take the opportunity they forewent last June to make their views heard, it’s even possible the surveys might even be understating Labour support.

Back in January, I wrote that Donald Trump’s election might have the unintended consequence of stemming the populist tide he wanted to unleash across Europe. With Europe’s leaders now circling the wagons to defend their vision of a unified West, and Donald Trump’s recent European tour seeming to signal his willingness to take America outside the club, Theresa May could be feeling increasingly lonely on the world stage. Her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ pitch may not be the easy sell it was just a few months ago. The current betting is that the Tories will still return to power next week with an in increased majority. However this race, which began as a long-odds yawner, could yet have an exciting home-stretch.


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