In April, when British Prime Minister Theresa May suddenly announced a general election on June 8, she was counting on a landslide victory over the opposition Labour Party and its flawed leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Her Conservative Party held 330 of the 650 seats in the Parliament that was dissolved on May 3, a majority of 15 over the 229 held by Labour and nine other parties. The election was held in May 2015.
Now, with a week to go, May’s bet is not looking so good. Latest opinion polls put her lead at 10-12 percentage points, half that in polls conducted in April when she announced the election. Betfair, a gambling website, is predicting a 94 per cent chance of a Conservative victory and a six per cent chance of a Labour one.
Since April, May has committed blunders. The most important was a reversal after a few days of a “dementia tax” announced in her party manifesto, following an uproar against it among the public and in her party. This is a tax on the amount people would have to pay for social care.
What damaged her was not so much the tax itself but the fact that she changed her mind so quickly. She had also said at least six times that she would not hold the snap election that she later called. May herself is not a charismatic campaigner nor an inspiring speaker.
Nor does her manifesto have the strong support of the business community, normally firm backers of the Conservatives. Terry Scuoler, director-general of the manufacturers’ association the EEF, said the manifesto had elements that were “not necessary” and showed May was “in danger of swinging the pendulum too far away” from business priorities. These include a reiteration of the “no (Brexit) deal is better than a bad deal” — rejected by company bosses fearful of administrative chaos if Britain crashed out of the EU in 2019 without new trading arrangements — as well as a commitment to bring immigration down to the tens of thousands.
In her favour is the weakness of her opponent. Corbyn, 68, has never held a government post and voted 428 times against his Labour Party during its years in government. He has been an M.P. for 34 years. Last summer 172 of his party members in Parliament signed a petition demanding that he step down. He refused.
May is campaigning relentlessly on the theme of his inexperience. “With his position on Brexit, he will find himself alone and naked in the negotiating chamber of the European Union,” she said in a speech on Tuesday. “The negotiations are due to begin 11 days after polling day. He is not prepared for them – but I am. Only we have the will and the plan to make a success of Brexit.”
She is also helped by the fact that support for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which won 12.9 per cent of the vote in 2015, is expected to crumble because it has achieved its objective of Brexit. Most of its voters are likely to switch to the Conservatives.
David Graham, a university lecturer, said he had not decided for whom to vote. “But Corbyn has not explained to us how he will fund the ambitious objectives of his manifesto, including the end of student fees, higher spending on education and the nationalisation of the railways.”
For his part, Corbyn is campaigning on the theme of social justice. “The richest five families in Britain own the equivalent of the total wealth of the entire population,” he said last weekend.
“We live in a grotesquely unequal society and it’s getting worse. Hospital patients are suffering ever longer waits and overcrowded wards; those who need care have been left without it. Children are crammed into crowded and crumbling classrooms. It has to change,” he said. He has proposed a minimum wage of 10 pounds an hour by 2020.
These themes resonate with a large section of the electorate, especially the poor, the young and the tens of thousands of people in the cities who cannot afford to buy a home nor pay for private health care or private schools. Corbyn is a warmer and more sympathetic speaker than May.
Graham said that investors in Hong Kong and mainland China would prefer a Conservative victory. “Corbyn is a real Socialist, not a Social Democrat like other leaders of the Labour party for the last 30 years. He would nationalise the railways and prioritise state ownership of key sectors like water and power generation. He is likely to raise taxes on property.
“That would make Britain a less attractive destination for foreign investors, especially with the relationship with Europe unclear. If you buy a new apartment block in central London, will there be enough bankers and professionals to rent it from you?” he said. “Will they move to Dublin or Frankfurt?”
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