Against all the odds, the general election campaign is beginning to develop into something vaguely approaching a contest. Around a month ago, opinion polls had the Conservatives around 20 percentage points ahead. Now, with less than three weeks to go until election day, that lead appears to have been cut in half. YouGov’s poll for the Sunday Times has the gap between the two main parties at nine points.
Recent election results have shown there is a need to be cautious about taking the results of opinion polls entirely at face value. Nevertheless, there has been a clear trend in favour of Labour which is hard to ignore. And there are perhaps a number of explanations for the shift in the public’s mood.
First, the longer the election campaign has gone on, the more that political debate has widened beyond the subject of Brexit. Theresa May was desperate to keep the public focussed on EU withdrawal because it suited her preferred narrative about her own strong and stable leadership. The Conservatives had successfully presented themselves as the only party which would pursue Brexit seriously and without compromise; indeed, in so doing the party appears to be on course to swallow Ukip whole.
Yet beyond largely empty platitudes about “Brexit meaning Brexit” and “no deal being better than a bad deal” there is very little that can be said about Britain’s negotiating strategy or about the likely outcome of the Brexit talks. That suits Labour rather well since its own position on Brexit is patently less unified. Instead, Jeremy Corbyn has been able to find the time and space to bring other key issues – the NHS, education, infrastructure – into the light. Not only that, but he has done so with a degree of radicalism than even his core supporters might not have anticipated. Corbyn, so much more at ease speaking to members of the public than he is at the dispatch box, suddenly looks more comfortable in his skin, and more confident in his position as leader.
Labour’s bold manifesto, while it raises as many questions as it answers, received a largely popular reception (beyond the right-wing media). In response, Theresa May’s policy programme, set out last week, was arguably as audacious, breaking as it did with the de-regulatory, small-state instincts that have dominated the Conservative agenda since Margaret Thatcher’s heyday. In an attempt to set out a broad vision for Britain’s future, the Prime Minister indicated a willingness to make difficult choices. Most obviously, the decision to bring an end to the pensions “triple lock” and to rethink the way social care is paid for, was a strike against the Tories’ core vote – well-off OAPs.
Sure enough, plans to force elderly people to pay for care in their homes until they are down to their last £100,000 has been met with dismay in some quarters. Whether a person will require such care in old age is largely in the hands of fate, which is why Labour’s characterisation of the proposal as a “dementia tax” has some resonance. Yet it will hit the wealthy hardest and may have the effect in the long-term of taking the heat out of a housing market which has been out of control for nigh on four decades. The policy is not, in short, without some merit.
It is notable though that criticism of the Conservatives’ social care plans, which are premised on a dose of economic realism, has outweighed positive debate about the pledge – as populist as it is economically wrong-headed – to bring immigration down. All in all, Theresa May would have hoped for a better week.
Only a brave punter would imagine that Labour can win on June 8. There will also be many on the right of the Labour Party who feel conflicted about whether they even want to get close: a relatively tight defeat will entrench the authority of the leader and his supporters on the left. For the Conservatives, a victory of unexpectedly narrow proportions may prove to be a nightmare too, not only in terms of making Brexit negotiations thornier but because internal disagreements about Theresa May’s manifesto are likely to become exposed.
Paradoxically, the one party which has the sense to understand the huge economic dangers of a bad – that is to say ‘hard’ – Brexit is facing grim poll after grim poll. Some are even questioning whether the Liberal Democrats will have more MPs on June 9 than they did after the last, catastrophic election. Still, the Lib Dems are right: in two years’ time neither Theresa May’s grand vision for Britain, nor Jeremy Corbyn’s as it goes, will matter one jot if Brexit has left the country on its uppers.