What a difference a general election makes. When, on April 18, Theresa May announced she was going to the country, the Tory poll lead topped 20 points. The pundits, the voters, every person of reasonable mind in the UK – all expected a Tory win. A Tory landslide. A Tory triumph that would resound down through history and leave Labour – led by the hapless Jeremy Corbyn – out of power for a thousand years. But it didn’t quite happen that way.
It’s easy to forget now, but Theresa May called this general election herself. By choice. And when she called it, Labour really were very unpopular. Corbyn’s personal ratings were sub-dire, the party’s polls weren’t much better, and even the most optimistic Labour voter planned to wait out the election in a darkened room with a large scotch. The Conservatives, in sharpest contrast, were the electorate’s darling. Over the past year their poll scores had ticked higher and higher, and in Theresa May they boasted a leader more popular than either Thatcher or Blair in their pomp. (What’s most impressive, of course, is that May managed to collapse the rise and fall of both those leaders into one eleven-month period.)
At the start of the campaign, May centred the campaign around herself. It made sense – she was more popular than her party – and while she lacked anything that might be called a personality, she made up for that with competence. Lots of competence. Competence wasn’t just her central pitch to the electorate, it was her only pitch to the electorate. ‘Strong and stable leadership’, wasn’t just a soundbite, it was a soundbinge – one we were forced to devour at every hustings and interview and commons speech till we felt sick. But it worked. We all thought May was competent. And of course it led irresistibly to the Tories’ electoral failsafe: getting us to imagine Jeremy Corbyn in Number Ten.
In this, they were aided and abetted, naturally, by their commercial partners in the press. Fleet Street pouring acid derision on the Labour Party is a fine old British tradition, I need hardly say. But this time around the hacks didn’t hold back.