The post mortem on how Theresa May managed to lose her majority in Thursday’s general election after expecting to secure a landslide victory is well under way. Here are 10 theories.
First things first. Did she blow it?
Yes. The Conservatives came first in this election with 318 seats, with Labour the next biggest party on 262 seats. The Conservatives got more votes that anyone else – 42.4% to Labour’s 40% – and Theresa May’s party got more votes than anyone since the record-breaking total John Major received in 1992. And yes, that means she got more votes than Tony Blair’s New Labour landslide in 1997. So, you ask, in what sense did she blow it?
Well, she had 331 MPs – more than the 326 needed to have a Commons majority – when she decided to call the election with the aim of increasing her majority. She also began the campaign with an undisputed opinion-poll lead in double figures and a landslide victory within her grasp. She ends it having to try to do a deal with the 10 Democratic Unionist Party MPs to stay in power, and knowing that, the decision to call a snap election will go down as one of the biggest own goals in British political history. So how did it come to this?
1) Deciding to call an election
Theresa May had been serenely racking up stunning approval ratings and huge opinion-poll leads. Her constant refrain was “Brexit meant Brexit” and it seemed a serious, tough, honest and non-flashy politician was what the British people wanted. Her honeymoon period felt like that of another self-consciously unshowy prime minister who came to power without an election – Gordon Brown. But unlike Mr Brown in 2007, she did not allow speculation about a snap election to run rife only to blow her reputation by deciding not to call one after all. She ruled out having an election. And then she changed her mind. She insisted she was acting in the national interest but others detected baser motives. Jeremy Corbyn said: “How can any voter trust what the prime minister says?”. Nicola Sturgeon said it was a naked power grab and a bid to crush all opposition. The public, like Brenda in Bristol, seemed weary of politics and voting.
2) The wrong type of campaign
This was Theresa May’s election – the Conservatives were some way off in the distance, if they were visible at all, at the start of the campaign. But was she the right kind of candidate to be placed front and centre like this? Katie Perrior, Mrs May’s former director of communications thinks not. Writing in the Times, she said: “If you run a presidential-style campaign with a woman who doesn’t like media interviews, then you have to accept that it’s better to do them and run the risk that they go badly than look like you are running scared. Furthermore, if you want to brag that your candidate is a bloody difficult woman, then she has to show some empathy to remind people she is human after all.”
3) Dodging the TV debates
With huge poll leads at the start of the campaign it was quickly decided that Mrs May would not take part in anything as risky as a TV debate with her main challenger, Jeremy Corbyn, or risk meeting too many members of the public in big rallies. That decision backfired when Mr Corbyn decided to take part in a seven-way debate with other party leaders – he did not make a big deal of her absence, but everybody else on the stage did. The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas said: “You don’t say it’s the most important election of our lifetime and not be bothered to show up.” Mrs May might have performed badly in the debate, but she arguably took a far bigger reputational hit by not taking part, as it opened her up to accusations she was running scared, or that she was complacently assuming victory.
4) Underestimating the opposition
Sporting history is littered with underdogs triumphing because they wanted to win more than their opponents, or put in more effort. The same sometimes goes for politics. In this election Mrs May seemed like she would be happy to say “strong and stable” from dawn until the sun set over the fields of wheat she “naughtily” ran through as a child. There was little in the way of a positive message to entice floating voters. Her campaign team did not seem able to conceive of the idea that anyone would take Mr Corbyn seriously. They underestimated how well his anti-austerity message would go over with voters worn out by years of frozen wages and public spending squeezes. Many commentators, on the left and right, who had written Jeremy Corbyn off as vote-losing liability have had to eat their words since the election. Just about everyone underestimated his appeal, once he was given a chance to air his views unmediated by a largely hostile press.
5) Manifesto policies
The turning point of the campaign, according to insiders, was Theresa May’s U-turn on social care. Team May were apparently so confident of victory that they thought they could tackle the looming problem of social care costs – an issue parties scrapping to win elections have generally shied away from. But within hours the main thing many people knew about the Conservative programme for government was that it included a “dementia tax” that could lead to more people having to sell their homes to pay for care. The same went for means-testing the winter fuel allowance and ending the “triple lock” that guarantees a minimum 2.5% increase in the state pension. Mrs May might have got away with the rapid U-turn on social care – something that is almost unheard of the middle of an election campaign – if she had owned up to it but she continued to insist that nothing had changed.
Anna Soubry, an anti-Brexit Tory MP said this was the moment that she lost her “strong and stable” reputation. Some Conservative MPs have suggested, off the record, that the 2017 manifesto was the worst the party has ever published. Ms Soubry said it was more a problem of “appalling” presentation – not properly explaining the social care changes, which would actually have benefited many less well-off people – and allowing people to think free school meals for poor children were being axed, when in fact the plan was to end the free lunches for all infants, which benefits the better-off.
6) Not reacting to the Labour surge
Nick Timothy, pictured, who was forced out as Theresa May’s policy adviser after the election result, suggests Team May were not even aware that there was a surge in Labour support as polling day approached. In his resignation statement, he said this was “because modern campaigning techniques require ever-narrower targeting of specific voters, and we were not talking to the people who decided to vote for Labour”. Instead of pushing their message on the NHS and the energy price cap to get wavering Labour voters on side, they doubled down on what they thought was their strongest suit – Brexit and “strong and stable leadership” in contrast to a “coalition of chaos” under Mr Corbyn.
7) May’s personality
People knew very little about Theresa May before the campaign started – she had been home secretary for a long time but had not courted publicity like some of her cabinet colleagues. An introvert, by Westminster standards, who does not like talking about her private feelings, she tended to come across as ill-at-ease on the TV sofa. Like Hillary Clinton in last year’s US elections, she was not a natural on the campaign trail either. As Daily Mail sketch writer Quentin Letts pointed out at one event, she tended to look a bit miserable, or as he put it, a “glumbucket’. Mr Corbyn, on the other hand, looked like he was enjoying himself. At the end of the campaign, Mrs May had to rely on Boris Johnson, a natural political showman, to whip up the crowds.
8) Negativity and the youth vote
Theresa May spent a lot of time attacking Jeremy Corbyn’s credibility and, as Nick Timothy has acknowledged, not enough time setting out her “positive plan for for the future”. There are shades of Clinton here again, who focused heavily on attacking her opponent’s fitness for office rather than explaining what she would do with power. Conservative attacks on Mr Corbyn’s anti-terror record will have sounded alarm bells with older readers of Conservative-supporting newspapers. They may have meant less to anyone under 30, who were more interested in what the Labour leader had to say about their future rather than who he was holding meetings with decades ago. Labour countered Tory attack ads on Facebook with upbeat messages and celebrity endorsements. Labour’s successful push to get out the youth vote was a decisive factor in some seats, although there is still some debate about the size of the surge in voting among 18 to 24-year-olds. The Tory campaign was widely criticised for being negative and uninspiring.
9) Fox hunting and ‘the same old Tories’
It may simply have been a repetition of a longstanding Tory policy but Theresa May’s vow to hold a free vote on bringing back fox hunting is thought by some to have harmed her efforts to seal the deal with Labour voters flirting with the Conservatives. It came up a lot on the doorstep, according to some reports, helping to “re-toxify” the Conservative brand among voters in traditional Labour areas, which Mrs May was banking on to win a big majority. Like the social care U-turn, or the pledge to bring back grammar schools, it may have given anyone flirting with backing the Tories for the first time in their lives a reason not to switch their vote.
Theresa May wanted the election to be about Brexit but the terror attacks in Manchester and London changed the course of the campaign. Suddenly it was all about security and anti-terror policy. This should have put the former home secretary in a strong position, and her statements on the attacks, struck a suitably prime ministerial tone. But as polling day approached, Labour’s criticism of cuts to police numbers by Mrs May started to gain traction.