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How Did The Conservatives Squander A 21-point Poll Lead In A Month?

02/06/2017 16:14 BST | Updated 02/06/2017 16:14 BST
Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

On the morning of 18th April when Theresa May called the General Election, everything looked pretty rosy in Conservative central office. An ICM poll for The Guardian the same day gave them a 21-point lead over Labour, which when translated into seats would have handed them a landslide majority.

Fast forward six weeks, - now in the tail-end of the campaign the world looks a very different place. The latest poll from YouGov has Labour within three points of the Conservatives, precipitating talk of a hung parliament. It appears the wheels have come off the Conservative campaign. So what has gone wrong?

In calling the election, when she had promised she wouldn't, Theresa May had hoped to look strong but instead ends up looking weak. This is exactly the same position that Gordon Brown ended up in when he refused to call a General Election in 2007 when Labour was doing similarly well in the polls - but in reverse.

She committed the number one cardinal sin of politics, which is to fail to clearly articulate policy - in this case on social care - and what it means for the electorate and correctly predict the way in which that policy announcement will go down with the electorate. What makes it worse is, this was a policy aimed at a particularly important section of the electorate, specifically pensioners, which the Conservative party relies on for its electoral success. The same problem, but to a much lesser extent, that struck Margaret Thatcher with the introduction of the Poll Tax has hit Theresa May now. Why on earth did she try to initiate a contentious policy on social care in an election that she was almost certain to win? The 'Dementia Tax', as the social care policy has come to be known, is now firmly tied to her bid for leadership.

The announcement was supposed to make her look strong and capable of tackling the big issues that politicians have always been scared to touch. Instead, with the belated U-turn announcement of a cap on social care, a day after the manifesto launch and after sustained pressure from inside her party, she looks weak.

The Conservatives' message at the start of the campaign centred entirely around Theresa May's leadership style and her ability to steer Britain through the Brexit negotiations. The perceived indecision and inability to negotiate with her own party over social care has led people to question whether she truly has the character the Conservatives built their campaign around. 'If she can U-turn this quickly on domestic policy', is how the electorate is starting to think, 'what is she going to do when she is negotiating with the leaders of 27 European countries on our Brexit terms?'

The perception of Theresa May as a weak leader is starting to dominate the political narrative. In the early stages of the campaign her decision not to participate in the TV debates was overlooked by the media but now, after she was ambushed by Corbyn's last minute appearance in the leader debate on Sky on 31st May, she looks weak.

With their poll lead narrowing, the Conservatives are some way from where they thought they were going to be at this stage in the campaign. Their dreams of destroying the Labour party by scooping up great swathes of working-class Northerns are in tatters. So much for Theresa May's pitch to charm the 'just-about-managing'.

So, with the initiative and momentum of their campaign lost, where do the Conseratives go in these crucial last few days? They definitely need to continue to highlight Jeremy Corbyn's weaknesses as a leader, his indifference over Britain's relationship with the European Union and the gaps between his own personal views on issues such as the Trident nuclear deterrent and the manifesto that the Labour party are presenting to the country. The Conservatives, under a revitalised Lynton Crosby-led campaign, are likely to try to avoid being overly negative about Corbyn's character but develop lines of argument that attack him on his own policies and leadership. By going over-the-top on personal negative attacks they risk looking bullying and desperate. Expect them to go hell-for-leather over the next few days on defence, security and terrorism, and to contrast their own policies with previous statements made by Corbyn, for example on the IRA in direct mail, telephone messages and social media advertising.

There may also be the sense of déjà vu when the Conservatives rekindle the threat, as they did in the 2015 General Election campaign, of the dangers of a Labour/SNP alliance taking power in the event of a hung parliament. I'm not sure the electorate will buy this argument from them a second time and they risk falling into the trap of being seen to be manipulative, which always neutralises any persuasive appeal.

For Labour, they have succeeded - not always by their own design - in turning the campaign onto social justice issues, traditionally one of their strongest policy areas with the electorate. They have galvanised a coagulation of left wing voters, squeezing out the Lib Dems and the Greens in an informal anti-Tory alliance.

From where Labour were in mid-April, languishing in the mid-twenties in the polls, it is remarkable that we are now even contemplating a 'hung parliament', however unlikely that is. Could Labour form a coalition with the Lib Dems or the SNP on the 9th June? If the election is as close as some polls are indicating (and that is a big if) then these remaining next few days will be crucial, as previous studies have shown that about 7% of the electorate decide their voting intention in the last 24 hours. Another U-turn from Theresa May or another misstep from Jeremy Corbyn and that could be curtains for their bid for No.10.