Theresa May’s gamble, or how to throw away a landslide

The other night, watching the British election party leaders’ debate, I found myself warming to Jeremy Corbyn. Jeremy Corbyn! I thought Are you mad? You see, I’m not a natural Corbyn supporter — I’m not even a Labour Party supporter. But it’s been that kind of election, where after an hour or so of the usual tired slogans you find yourself warming to a man who turns up on television with a pot of home-made jam and says if he becomes Prime Minister he’ll use his downtime to tend to his allotment.

It’s been a weird election. Nobody really wanted and Theresa May didn’t need to call it. The conventional wisdom is that she thought it was too easy a chance to ignore. The polls were saying she’d win a landslide. But I’m not so sure: I like to think the gambler’s urge got to her: that one night, in the flat above Downing Street, she was suddenly gripped by the desire to risk it all just for the incredible high that comes from taking a chance and winning. It’s an affliction politicians suffer from: Tony Blair had it, Margaret Thatcher had it, David Cameron had it so bad it was his undoing with one risky referendum too many.

But it was a bigger gamble for Theresa May because she’s never won an election. She’d managed to become Prime Minister by the ancient political art of saying nothing while her rivals destroyed each other, and now she was giving up a life of caution and risking it all on one throw…

Oh to be a fly on the wall at Number 10. What was her reaction when the polling started to come in? When her own manifesto launch turned into a shipwreck? When even the Tory press accused her of running the worst election campaign in memory? Did she shout and swear, throw things at the wall? Did she rail at David Davis, send him shocked and trembling from the room? Did she lock herself away and summon reassuring memories of the time she sacked George Osborne? Or is she as emotionless in private as she is before the cameras?

At any rate, she must be regretting that she ever called this misconceived election. Even if she wins tomorrow, as still seems most likely, her rivals have seen her weakness. She is a wounded lioness, and it can only be a matter of time before Boris the laughing hyena takes her down. Unless she wins really big. The only thing that can save her now is a landslide, but then that’s the deal if you call an election when the polls are predicting a landslide: anything else looks like defeat.

What went wrong? It’s been a topsy-turvy campaign. The Labour cognoscenti have been talking down Corbyn, so desperate are they to be proved right in their belief that he is electoral poison. Whatever happens tomorrow, they’ve already been proved wrong: at the very least he’s given the Conservatives a scare.

If I can find myself warming to Jeremy Corbyn, then anyone can. I think his economic policies won’t work, I think his desire for talks with Isis are plain crazy — how do you negotiate with people who want to bring about the end of the world? — and I can never forgive him for his failure to campaign properly against Brexit.

But here’s the thing: I think Theresa May’s just as bad. Her economic policies are based on wishful fantasies as much as Corbyn’s, only hers are fantasies of a return to some sort of 19th century trading power. Her plan to tackle Isis is to threaten suicide bombers with jail. Her immigration policy is framed around the idea all immigrants are either terrorists or benefits cheats, and a desire to drag Britain back to a 1950s idyll that never was. And I can never forgive her for Brexit either.

The Conservatives chose to play this election as a choice between May and disaster. But as far as I’m concerned the disaster happened a year ago, and the rest is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. She may be a late convert to the virtues of Brexit, but Theresa May has the zeal of the convert and now seems intent not only upon a hard Brexit, but on wrecking relations with the rest of the EU as well.

A word here: I am not what the Brexit brigade like to call a Remoaner: I’m a unilateral Remainer. I live in Berlin. I’ve moved on. But there’s an election and I still have a vote.

And if you ask me to choose between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, there really isn’t much to choose on. It’s what Dr Johnson would have called a contest between a louse and a flea. And I wonder how much of the Labour surge in the polls has been people who looked at both and liked neither, and felt that Corbyn at least seemed a man of principle, who believed in what he said, even if much of it was foolish, and had lived his entire life according to his beliefs.

The thing about that sort of surge is it’s the kind that tends to evaporate when people get in the ballot box and look at things in the cold light of day.

Of course, there was another choice. To me the biggest surprise of this election was not that Theresa May lost her massive lead in the polls — I never thought that would hold up. But I expected the Liberal Democrats to be the main beneficiary. They were the only party to speak for the 48 per cent who voted to Remain. Unless you live in Scotland or Northern Ireland, there is no home for a Remainer in British politics but the Lib Dems. And yet according to the polls they have failed to make any sort of impression on voters, and may even lose seats.

That, to me, is a lost opportunity. Britain could have done with a voice that spoke out against a Brexit movement that has driven a wedge between it and the Europe of Merkel and Macron, and driven it into the questionable embrace of Donald Trump. The young, in particular, are overwhelmingly Remainers, but it is Corbyn’s Labour that appears to have harnessed the youth vote, not the Lib Dems. Some of the blame here must lie with Tim Farron. He had the best jokes in the leader’s debate, but the job isn’t about being funny. He wasn’t prime ministerial, and he didn’t really seem to be taking the whole thing all that seriously. The Liberal Dems could have done with a little of Emmanuel Macron’s charisma.

Corbyn does not on first glance seem all that charismatic, but it is he who has attracted the biggest rallies in British politics since Churchill, and if he can bring the youth vote out as Macron did in France he may end up Prime Minister yet.

When it comes down to choosing prime ministers, I like to ask which candidate you’d want by your side on a sinking ship, with your enemies closing in and all hope of rescue lost. Winston Churchill had his less attractive side — his attitude towards India was reprehensible — but as he proved in 1940, there was no one better when the chips were down.

Who would you want on the burning deck in 2017? May? Corbyn? Farron? Abandon ship!

 

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