After three terrorist attacks in as many months, the campaigning resumed in earnest on Monday as the United Kingdom prepares to head to the polls on Thursday. The attacks, which have claimed a total of 34 lives, loom heavily in the international conscience, with a lot of the punditry speculating on how they will affect the election.
While conservative prime minister Theresa May has said that “there is far too much tolerance of extremism in our country,” it has done little to combat her declining lead in the polls. When May called the snap election in April, the Conservative party enjoyed a 16-point lead over Labour, a lead which grew to a hefty 20 points by the end of the month. However, since early May the Conservatives have been losing ground, with recent polls estimating their lead at anywhere between 4 and 10 points.
In relation to the attacks, the prime minister has taken heavy criticism from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for ‘presiding’ over large cuts to police funding in urban centers during her time as Home Secretary. The perpetrator of the attack in Manchester was reported to the police five times before the attack; they simply lacked the resources to investigate. Corbyn even backed calls for her to resign on Monday, although that initiative has failed to gain much traction in the public eye.
In truth, there is little straightforward information about how the attacks are going to affect the election. Conventional wisdom states that domestic terrorism does more for conservative candidates than liberals, in that conservative rhetoric more often appeals to a sense of increased security and traditional values. There is also the matter of Corbyn’s past associations to the IRA, and an event in 2009 where he welcomed representatives from Hezbollah to parliament, for which he has been amply criticized by the Conservatives.
However, May’s performance in the polls has continued to fall despite the terrorist action, and so it seems that there are more complex forces at work here.
For starters, there is a growing perception that May has bungled this campaign. Her party has moved away from a Brexit-forward strategy, an approach that made them appear economically focused and tough on international relations. However, the Conservatives have muddied the waters for themselves by proposing the re-legalization of fox hunting, a move which has increased the perception that they are elitist and out of touch with the average Briton. Compounding this perception was the so-lampooned ‘dementia tax’ – a part of the Conservative platform which would have seen home care removed from NHS coverage if the patient’s household assets totaled more than £100,000 – which May waffled on before removing it from the platform.
May is losing grip on her image as a decisive, consistent politician. It may not be a coincidence that the #4 song in the UK this month is “Liar, Liar” by Captain Ska which is explicitly about the prime minister.
Accounting for Labour’s surge in the polls is Corbyn’s unexpectedly competent performance on the campaign trail. He has maintained his strongly socialist positions – which have strongly limited his ability to draw traditionally conservative voters to the Labour camp – but has performed well in interviews and on the campaign trail, which is endearing him to the British public with a string of celebrity endorsements.In the words of Tom Clarkson, vice president of political consultancy firm BritainThinks, “Very little of the Labour manifesto has gotten through to most voters,” Clarkson says, citing interviews his firm has conducted with swing voters around the country. “[Corbyn] has come across as the complete opposite of Theresa May: He has some warmth, and he’s prepared to offer some quite funny jokes. Theresa May comes across as kind of a robot.”
Also contributing to May’s fall from grace is her rapprochement with U.S. President Donald Trump. The president enjoys a 64% disapproval rating in Britain, and his recent Twitter feud with London mayor Sadiq Khan has done nothing for his popularity. But with Brexit looming, May has been forced by her tough on the EU position to collaborate more closely with the American administration. Corbyn, for his part, has advocated an EU-forward Brexit strategy and has no kind words for Trump.
This is not to say that the Conservatives will not, in all likelihood, win the election this Thursday. It appears that the Conservatives will make some gains, Labour and UKIP will suffer some losses, but at the end of the day, this election is still a failure for Theresa May. She called it in the hopes that her party would be able to increase their 17-seat majority in order to take more decisive action in the upcoming Brexit negotiations. Had the election taken place in April, May would have received her majority and the endorsement of the British people to move forward. The election that will actually take place on Thursday will make May look like an opportunist, will leave the nation in a plurality and do little to cement her image as a strong leader.
And, for what it’s worth, we live in an age where election polling is less and less relevant. In the last elections in Canada, the U.S. and France, the poll numbers were significantly off from the eventual result. Given the seismic shifts in national character and external threats, the political future of the UK is anything but certain.