U.K. vot­ers quickly lose faith in May lead­er­ship

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY BEN­JAMIN PLACKETT

LON­DON | As British vot­ers pre­pare to head to the polls on Thurs­day, an elec­tion that was sup­posed to be a cake­walk for Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May and her Tories has turned into a slog across a po­lit­i­cal mine­field.

The prime min­is­ter called the sur­prise snap elec­tion in April in hopes of beef­ing up the Con­ser­va­tive Party’s slen­der ma­jor­ity in par­lia­ment, bur­nish­ing her cre­den­tials as a strong leader and giv­ing her more lever­age ahead of tough ne­go­ti­a­tions on leav­ing the Euro­pean Union. A bonus: An over­whelm­ing win would deal a crush­ing blow to the reel­ing La­bor Party op­po­si­tion and its be­lea­guered leader, Jeremy Cor­byn.

But seven weeks have proved an eter­nity in British pol­i­tics, and a com­bi­na­tion

of bad luck and bad cam­paign de­ci­sions have sud­denly put Mrs. May’s ex­pected rout in jeop­ardy. Af­ter con­sis­tently run­ning 10 to 15 per­cent­age points ahead of La­bor, the Con­ser­va­tives have been jolted by polls show­ing a much tighter con­test.

An elec­tion in which hardly any­thing has gone as the pun­dits pre­dicted was up­ended once again over the week­end. Cam­paign­ing was sus­pended a sec­ond time af­ter ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Lon­don killed at least seven and wounded dozens of oth­ers.

British of­fi­cials said Sun­day that the vote would go ahead as sched­uled, but the surg­ing con­cerns about which party is best po­si­tioned to han­dle na­tional se­cu­rity is­sues has added one more vari­able to an al­ready scram­bled po­lit­i­cal equa­tion.

Mrs. May, a for­mer home sec­re­tary with a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing tough on crime, was once thought to be the clear ben­e­fi­ciary of ris­ing voter con­cerns about na­tional se­cu­rity, but that did not prove the case last month in the wake of a sui­cide bomb­ing at a Manch­ester concert and may not help her at the polls this time around.

A YouGov sur­vey re­leased Wed­nes­day sug­gested that La­bor was surg­ing and the Con­ser­va­tives’ 17-seat ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment could be cut or even wiped out en­tirely. In a sign that the poll wasn’t an out­lier, an Ip­sos Mori sur­vey re­leased Fri­day — be­fore the lat­est Lon­don at­tacks — gave the Con­ser­va­tives just a 5-point lead of 45 per­cent to 40 per­cent, a swing of 10 points in La­bor’s di­rec­tion com­pared with two weeks ear­lier.

“It is clear that on con­tact with the vot­ers, Mrs. May is not go­ing down well and she is los­ing ground in par­tic­u­lar amongst mid­dle-aged vot­ers and fe­male vot­ers,” Ben Page, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ip­sos MORI, told the Reuters news agency.

Aside from the em­bar­rass­ment to the prime min­is­ter, who has been on the job for only 11 months, a cliffhanger vote could un­der­mine the Con­ser­va­tives’ hopes of shap­ing the agenda and set off a pe­riod of po­lit­i­cal tur­moil as par­ties jos­tle to form coali­tions with a work­able num­ber of seats to take power.

Mrs. May “wanted to go for a strong ma­jor­ity be­cause the polling sug­gested it would be easy,” said Tim Oliver, an an­a­lyst at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics and Po­lit­i­cal Science. “But no one fore­saw that her cam­paign­ing would be so weak.”

If he man­ages to seize vic­tory from the jaws of de­feat, Mr. Cor­byn has hinted that he might form an al­liance with the Scot­tish Na­tion­al­ist Party, which is push­ing for another in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum for Scot­land even though 55 per­cent of Scot­tish vot­ers opted to re­main in the United King­dom just three years ago.

As her lead shrinks, Mrs. May has turned to talk­ing up the dan­gers of a La­bor vic­tory. She warned that it could lead to a “coali­tion of chaos.”

That mes­sage seems to have res­onated with Tory sup­port­ers.

“A Scot­tish Na­tion­al­ist-La­bor coali­tion fright­ens peo­ple,” said Tory voter Robin Holden, a 71-year-old re­tired cloth­ing cat­a­log com­pany ex­ec­u­tive from Har­ro­gate in North York­shire. “I think ex­pec­ta­tions for May were far too high and un­rea­son­able at the start of the cam­paign. But the Tories will still win. I think they’ll in­crease their ma­jor­ity.”

By con­trast, ex­pec­ta­tions for Mr. Cor­byn were rock-bot­tom when the cam­paign be­gan. An old-line left­ist, he was sad­dled with the im­age of a weak leader who couldn’t even com­mand the sup­port of many fel­low La­bor mem­bers in Par­lia­ment. Opin­ion polls show much of the elec­torate likes many of his so­cial wel­fare pro­pos­als, but La­bor vot­ers strug­gle to ac­cept him as their prime min­is­ter.

Mr. Cor­byn’s pro­pos­als to re­na­tion­al­ize Bri­tain’s ag­ing rail net­work and scrap univer­sity tu­ition fees have won him ku­dos among his lib­eral base. But he has come un­der with­er­ing crit­i­cism for his per­ceived weak­ness as an aca­demic, bum­bling stan­dard-bearer.

“I’m vot­ing La­bor de­spite its leader,” said Rose Glen­ner­ster, a 25-year-old doc­tor from Brighton. “I agree with a lot of Cor­byn’s poli­cies, but I think he isn’t a strong leader and doesn’t in­spire con­fi­dence.”

An­a­lysts said the elec­tion would come down to whether young vot­ers such as Ms. Glen­ner­ster — who are much more likely to vote La­bor — turn out on Thurs­day. Poll­sters usu­ally as­sume that young peo­ple are less likely to turn out, but the lat­est YouGov poll an­tic­i­pated a higher-than-nor­mal youth vote.

“That’s one rea­son why there’s a di­ver­gence in the Tory lead,” said Ben Walker, founder of the poll ag­gre­ga­tion ser­vice Bri­tain Elects.

May’s mis­steps

La­bor has been creep­ing up in polls since the elec­tion was an­nounced. On April 11, the party was ex­pected to win just a quar­ter of the seats in the House of Com­mons, a fig­ure that has since grown to more than a third in re­cent days.

Mrs. May, pun­dits say, bears much of the blame for her party’s lack­lus­ter show­ing. An elec­tion cam­paign that was con­ceived to demon­strate the prime min­is­ter’s lead­er­ship skills has been marred by what the British call “own goals” com­mit­ted by the Tory stan­dard-bearer.

Early on, the prime min­is­ter was forced to make an em­bar­rass­ing U-turn on one of her key tax poli­cies, which would have clawed back the cost of end-oflife health care from the sale of the de­ceased’s house. Mr. Cor­byn and oth­ers dev­as­tat­ingly dubbed the pol­icy the “de­men­tia tax,” and Mrs. May was forced to wa­ter down the pol­icy in re­ac­tion to a pub­lic back­lash.

Mrs. May’s lead­er­ship im­age was also dinged when Mr. Cor­byn was largely seen to have held his own in 90 min­utes of ques­tion­ing last week dur­ing their only headto-head clash. The prime min­is­ter took shots for skip­ping a sec­ond tele­vi­sion de­bate with Mr. Cor­byn and the lead­ers of other par­ties Wed­nes­day.

“How dare you call a gen­eral elec­tion and run away from the de­bate,” Lib­eral Demo­cratic leader Tim Far­ron said at one point. He told vot­ers, “You’re not worth Theresa May’s time. Don’t give her yours.”

Mrs. May de­fended her­self by say­ing she was more con­cerned with the is­sues than op­por­tu­ni­ties for sound bites. “Jeremy Cor­byn seems to be pay­ing far more at­ten­tion to how many ap­pear­ances on TV he’s do­ing, and he ought to be pay­ing a lit­tle more at­ten­tion to Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions,” she said.

Still, an­a­lysts say the episode raised fur­ther doubts about Mrs. May’s po­lit­i­cal skills and her abil­ity as a cam­paigner.

The prime min­is­ter has also been talk­ing about the wrong is­sues on the cam­paign trail, Mr. Oliver said.

“If you look back at the Brexit ref­er­en­dum, much of it was ac­tu­ally about im­mi­gra­tion, the Na­tional Health Ser­vice and a dis­like of the es­tab­lish­ment,” he said. “She has for­got­ten [the vote] was about those is­sues and has just been bang­ing on about Brexit. But La­bor has been talk­ing about what some might say are ‘pop­ulist’ things like hos­pi­tals, trans­port and other nice things that ev­ery­one wants.”

The ter­ror­ist at­tack that killed 22 con­cert­go­ers in Manch­ester brought a tem­po­rary pause to cam­paign­ing and a pos­si­ble re­prieve for the Con­ser­va­tives, said Mr. Walker, the poll­ster. “If Manch­ester hadn’t hap­pened, the fo­cus would still have been on the U-turn,” he said. “That was an open goal for La­bor.”

Mr. Cor­byn still faces a steep climb. He also has been crit­i­cized in the past for his will­ing­ness to en­gage with groups such as Ha­mas and the Ir­ish Re­pub­li­can Army. Even his sup­port­ers are con­cerned.

“There are a few things in his past that make me ner­vous,” said Ms. Glen­ner­ster. “For ex­am­ple, his sup­port of the IRA and its ter­ror­ism.”

The ter­ror­ist at­tacks, mean­while, have hard­ened the re­solve of Tory vot­ers. “Manch­ester has brought na­tional se­cu­rity to the fore­front of our minds and firmed up sup­port,” said Mr. Holden.

Still, with just days un­til the vote, Con­ser­va­tives are strug­gling to re­cap­ture the high ground they oc­cu­pied at the start of the cam­paign. With Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions with the EU to be­gin in earnest soon, some even are ar­gu­ing that Mrs. May may get a per­verse ben­e­fit if she keeps the prime min­is­ter’s post with a re­duced ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment.

“If she’s only got a small ma­jor­ity, then Europe might have to con­cede [on con­tro­ver­sial is­sues] be­cause they’ll know she can’t force things through [Par­lia­ment] like she could with a large ma­jor­ity,” said Mr. Oliver.

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