By Emma Burnell / @EmmaBurnell_
Theresa May’s mega-wobble and the subsequent Tory dip in the polls may or may not last, but its effects will be felt for years to come either way. Let us be under no illusion, the Prime Minister has comprehensively trashed her brand.
By reversing as soon as the going got a little rough on the Dementia Tax, she showed the whole country that when it comes to standing up for what she believes in she is as strong and stable as a melting blancmange. Her close advisor Nick Timothy who – it is widely reported – inserted the measure at the last minute and with little consultation, may be the first of Team May to fall on his sword when this is all over. If current polls are borne out, that won’t be enough and May will be gone before Brexit is complete. The Tories defenestrate losers far quicker than the sentimental Labour Party at the best of times, but to have gambled so recklessly and gone backwards would be enough to get rid of her even if they wanted in their hearts to keep her. May needs to win even bigger than she wanted to a week ago now.
Let’s make no mistake about how big a failing this is. May made this election all about her and her ability to stand tough in the face of ferocious opposition. From the buttock-clenchingly embarrassing speech she made on the steps of Downing Street after details of her (already shameful) bust up with Junker emerged, to the mind numbing repetition of the phrase “strong and stable leadership”, it has been her who has framed this election as a presidential style contest on who should lead the country into the Brexit negotiations. It is her who believed she couldn’t lose to Jeremy Corbyn on those terms, it is her who is currently showing that this is possible enough to discomfort many Tories who two weeks ago were talking about the annihilation of the Labour Party for years to come.
Going into this unnecessary election, May’s approval figures were stratospheric. Polls and focus groups showed voters supporting her if not the Tories. Many were willing to lend her personally their votes for this Brexit election feeling she was better placed to negotiate tough than Jeremy Corbyn. And that may still hold true when people get to the ballot box. It’s a long way between here and June 8th.
But May’s Tories who made a grand error in being smug enough about the perceived contrast between their leader and Labour’s to think that they could cram their programme for government with all the harshest of choices and the basest of their instincts. This wasn’t a manifesto so much as a “sod your granny-festo”. On social care, they chose the worst of all worlds by refusing to tax the rich more to pay for the crisis, but ensuring that the middle band of those in need of care – those who were just about managing before they started to not manage without help – would be hit the hardest by their policy. It was a huge mistake and one Labour capitalised on well.
The Dementia Tax policy was an unnecessary attempt to have a mandate to do difficult things. May assumed an easy election and a large majority. So she filled her manifesto with the worst she would want to do, in order to ensure the Lords wouldn’t stop her from doing them (according to convention, the House of Lords doesn’t tend to challenge items held in a manifesto as strongly they do other measures because they are considered to have a mandate). Her complacency ensured she failed to see the danger of doing so. The Tories duly wobbled in the polls as their activists reported back criticism of their harsh policies coming up unprompted on the doorsteps.
But the bigger mistake was panicking and compounding the error by affecting a clunky and screeching U-turn. Because of this, Theresa May’s reputation is in shreds and it will probably never fully recover. It isn’t strong to fall at the first hurdle; it isn’t stable to turn frit at the first sign of resistance. The public have been clear that they want a strong leader to see them through Brexit, but May has been first belligerent rather than canny and now weak-willed rather than resolute.
This week has proved that Theresa May – a Tory opponent I once feared would be quite formidable – is eminently beatable. She has sown the seeds of her own destruction during this campaign. The real reason she called this election was to ensure a large swathe of grateful May loyalists to outnumber her enemies and critics within her own party (remember, she has sacked about as many backbencher ex-ministers as she currently has a majority to govern. Add their allies in to the mix, along with the swirling rumours of her falling out with Phillip Hammond and you have all the ingredients of a party ready to tear itself apart). As she looks more and more fallible, she needs to increase that majority by an expanding number to rule her own party well. This looks less and less likely.
Odds are the polls are probably overestimating Labour support as they tend to at this point in an election. Even if they’re realistic, local and regional swings may mean that Labour still lose seats while piling up additional votes in already Labour seats. Both sides of Labour’s ongoing if currently quieted civil war need to ask themselves what would, could or should have been different under different circumstances – positive and negative.
But right now it is not the Labour leader whose performance has been found not just wanting but devastatingly lacking. Those Labour MPs in marginal seats may find themselves a lot more buoyed going into the last two weeks of this election than anyone supposed at the beginning. There’s a great deal more to play for than we once thought.