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Theresa May has begun her premiership with her party in its strongest position in more than a quarter of a century. In head-to-head polling, she leads her Labour Party opponent by more than 30 points, including among both Remain and Leave voters in Britain’s EU referendum in June. This gives May an unusual opportunity to put her mark on the political agenda in the coming years.
Her Conservative government is also performing unusually well for this stage in an electoral cycle. Even before the “new leader” bounce, which has historically been worth around 10 points, the Conservatives were ahead. Polling since May’s arrival in 10 Downing Street has mostly given the Tories double-digit leads, including a 43 to 27 advantage in the most recent poll by ICM. These figures almost exactly equal the vote shares in the 1983 election, when Margaret Thatcher achieved her party’s biggest landslide since 1945. And the full effect of the bounce might still be to come.
There are various explanations for this dominance, including the unique circumstances around the Brexit vote and the departure of May’s predecessor, David Cameron, whose resignation was prompted by Brexit rather than the performance of the party. In fact, according to polling data compiled by Mark Pack, Cameron is the first Prime Minister to resign while ahead in most opinion polls.
May has also had an easier ride than she might have — the withdrawal of Andrea Leadsom from the Tory leadership race lead to a rapid coronation instead of a drawn-out race and members’ vote. In doing so, it removed many of the problems associated with leadership contests — acrimonious battles, the need to convince the grassroots before pivoting to the wider electorate and being forced to pledge things that might later prove restrictive. While she has made her views on Brexit and immigration very clear, May has made rather fewer promises on domestic policy.
By contrast, the opposition is a mess. Having now lost seats at four consecutive general elections, the Labour Party is embroiled in a divisive leadership contest, marred by factional bickering, arguments about process (one of which ended up in court, with the party being sued by a donor) and bizarre conspiracy theories involving intelligence agencies. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will now fight challenger Owen Smith for the job, a battle that won’t be resolved until a leadership conference on September 24.
Even then Labour’s problems will be far from over. The party’s infighting is mostly about economic ideology and largely misses the cultural detachment of an increasingly London-centric party from a great many traditional voters in its post-industrial heartlands. The divergence in attitudes on immigration, identity and values suggests the emergence of a culture war between the party and its voters, and both leadership factions — internationalist and cosmopolitan — find themselves on the opposite side to much of the party’s traditional support base.
The opportunity presented by the opposition’s disarray has not been lost on May, who has been busy parking her tanks on other parties’ lawns, highlighting themes of social justice and a reform of capitalism, with appeals to those who are “just getting by.”
Her positioning is astute. Many middle class swing voters may be concerned by Labour’s economic policies, but reluctant to back a party they see as uncaring. And among the less affluent, the Brexit vote was delivered not by those who are dependent on the state — a low-turnout and solidly Labour group - but by those who are just getting by without it. Many of these voters are culturally conservative, unhappy with Labour and tempted by the anti-EU, anti-immigration UK Independence Party. May also has much stronger across-the-aisle appeal compared with her predecessor, who was often seen as too far removed from the cares of ordinary voters. Labour voters, a recent poll confirmed, view May much more favourably than they had viewed Cameron six years ago.
The remainder of the current parliament, which runs until 2020, will not be without challenges, including delivering Brexit, managing a parliamentary party with an effective majority of just 16 seats and the prospect of a second independence referendum in Scotland. But judging by the current landscape, Theresa May has an extraordinary opportunity to dominate Britain’s politics for many years to come.
Matt Singh runs Number Cruncher Politics, a nonpartisan polling and elections site that predicted the 2015 UK election polling failure.