The decision to call a general election must have made sense at the time.
Prime Minister Theresa May was well aware she had heavily outscored her chief opponent, the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn, on personal ratings since entering 10 Downing Street in July last year. Polls put her Conservative Party ahead of Labour by as much as 21% in mid-April. But she inherited a House of Commons majority of just 12 when David Cameron stood down after the ‘Brexit’ vote. Even a tiny rebellion among her lawmakers could ruin policy and put Brexit negotiations at risk.
So, despite having frequently ruled out a snap election, May decided over the Easter weekend she needed a bigger majority and a personal mandate — allowing her to crush rival parties who were challenging what they saw as her plans for a “hard Brexit“, whereby the country would not only leave the E.U. but also the bloc’s lucrative single market. She bit the bullet and went to the country, a U-turn that in hindsight seems like the first crack in the facade of her carefully crafted “strong and stable” leadership image.
Now, with a week to go before voting, the election has become tighter than she could have possibly imagined. By May 25, Labour had slashed the Conservatives’ lead to just five points, according to a YouGov poll for The Times newspaper. On Wednesday, those same pollsters revealed more detailed research that showed the Conservatives could lose 20 seats and Labour gain 30.
It’s hard to overstate what a disaster that would be for the Conservative Party or “Tories.” Although they would remain the biggest party by some distance, this would result in a hung Parliament. May would then have to enter a difficult coalition with a third party that wanted a less severe Brexit or try and run the country by minority government.
Although many politicians and pundits are dubious about this outcome, talk of a Conservative landslide has now all but disappeared. Even before the result, lawmakers in Westminster are wondering where it all went wrong for the Tories.
The opposition has plenty of suggestions. Clive Lewis, Labour’s former shadow defense secretary, says Conservative “hubris” has been “partly responsible” for their recent problems. He says this confidence led May to producing a manifesto full of “harsh and draconian policies.”
May’s greatest mis-step was over social care. May wanted to introduce a system whereby care for the elderly would be paid for by the government selling their house after their death. Although the policy allowed for £100,000 ($128,500) to be kept for the person’s family, there was no cap on how much could be taken. If a house was worth £1m, for example, nine-tenths of that value could conceivably end up in the hands of the state rather than relatives.
There was a huge public outcry on what became known as the ‘dementia tax’. In what looked like a desperate backtrack, May announced an as-yet-unspecified cap on what the government could reap from the scheme. “After the dementia tax, the media smelt blood,” Lewis says. “Other policies started unraveling. She had called the election for firstly the cushion of a bigger majority and secondly to create a legacy. The second of those is certainly shot.”
May deliberately set up the election as a presidential-style fight between herself and Corbyn — a sensible approach, suggests Mark Spencer, a Conservative lawmaker who is confident a vast majority of the electorate distrusts the veteran leftist leader. “I won’t sleep comfortably if Corbyn is negotiating for us on Brexit,” he says.
The Prime Minister believed her long service in the Home Office – the U.K.’s interior ministry – played well against Corbyn, who is unpopular among his own lawmakers for leftwing views, such as scrapping the nuclear deterrent, and his apparent closeness to certain terrorist organisations, like Hamas. The contrast became especially acute after the terrorist attack on Manchester on May 22, when May accused her opponent of blaming the attack on U.K. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Yet apart from one significant mistake on Tuesday, when he proved unable to put a cost on Labour’s plans to offer free childcare to two-year-olds during a radio interview, Corbyn has run a smooth election campaign. “Jeremy Corbyn has surpassed people’s expectations, which were very low,” says a senior Labour politician who requested anonymity to speak freely. “Given airtime, people have realised he’s not so bad.”
Corbyn’s confidence is such that he has made a late decision to take part in a leaders’ television debate tonight, an event both he and May had previously shunned. He has challenged May to do the same in a clever effort to either make her look cowardly or force her into yet another change of mind.
The Labour leader’s move underscores May’s issues with presentation. Vince Cable, a Liberal Democrat who served alongside May in Cameron’s coalition cabinet of 2010-15, tells TIME: “Her operating style is to act from a bunker in the Home Office. She’s not good on economic and social issues and all of these weaknesses have been exposed in this campaign… She is going to be damaged for failing to get the spectacular result they’d hoped for.”
Cable agrees with pollsters who have estimated a Conservative majority of around 60. Historically, that is a strong victory, but not the milestone of 100 that many Conservatives had privately predicted. “The campaign has been lackluster and there’s been chronic misjudgements,” says Cable. “They need to energise their own supporters.”
A member of the government speaking on condition of anonymity admits that Labour “always turns out its core vote – the Conservatives don’t always”. However, the source argues that any increase in the party’s majority will “strengthen” May, no matter how small.
John Rentoul, chief political commentator at The Independent and a visiting professor at King’s College, London, agrees. “If she gets a majority at all it will be her majority and a mandate for Brexit. Psychologically [a narrow victory] wouldn’t be great, but people are over-egging that.”
Even when May called the election with such a huge lead Professor John Curtice, a political scientist at Strathclyde University, says he argued the decision was “not a risk-free exercise.”
A large lead in a popular vote doesn’t necessarily translate to a huge parliamentary majority, he says. “Everybody forgets that the Conservatives had a seven point lead [over Labour] in 2015 and only ended up with a majority of 12. The Prime Minister has not had the best of elections, the manifesto was like telling people about the bad medicine they would have to swallow for the next five years and that has not gone down too well.”
Curtice says that if May ends up with a majority of only, for example, 30 she will have not “freed herself” from potential rebellions, particularly a cadre of lawmakers who are particularly anti-E.U. and want no concessions made in Brexit negotiations.
“And her colleagues will be thinking, what the hell was that?” Curtice adds. “May’s political authority and political strategy is undoubtedly on the line.”