She should be looking vulnerable, but her approval ratings are historicby Tom Clark / April 28, 2017 / Leave a comment
Perhaps I am being premature, but general election 2017 already strikes me as a tale of two inter-locking mysteries. The second, which I’ll return to in a later post, is why a Labour Party pumping out fairly standard Labour messages is faring quite so catastrophically. But the first, which I want to chew over here, is why Theresa May’s Tories are doing so breathtakingly well.
What do I mean by that? It is best not to regard polling as an exact science, as Britain learned in 2015 when the pre-election surveys were off by a fateful few percentage points. But when a party is consistently enjoying a double digit lead, and is in more polls than not 20-plus points ahead, it is bone-headed to pretend they are not doing well. And even if you are properly cautious about bumps up and down in individual surveys, May’s approval ratings still look pretty historic—Ipsos Mori, which has been asking about the best prime minister for 40 years, has just reported that the current PM’s score on this count is the highest on record, besting both post-Falklands Thatcher and honeymoon Blair.
If you still need convincing look at the real votes cast in the Copeland by-election, which I predicted a few months ago might prompt May to cut and run this Spring. Her result there was not just impressive, it smashed all recent records—it was the most remarkable drubbing of the main opposition party at the hands of the government since 1878.
If you are a fan of May you might still protest that there is no mystery here—she is simply the no-nonsense, business-like leader the country craves in serious times, and she is running against a shambolic opposition. I hear that argument, but let’s get real. For these are, as we never stop reading, anti-political times. The money men collectively bankrupted us a decade ago and got away with it. The resulting tide of rage unleashed the Brexit vote; it has so smashed the established French party system, that neither big party there is any longer even in contention for the presidency; and it has—in a manner which would once have been utterly unthinkable—carried Donald Trump all the way to the White House.
May is, putting it mildly, not obviously a woman to ride this insurgent tide. She is a career politician, in the world’s longest-established party and, a few short months ago, she cautiously rallied to the defence of the status quo in the EU referendum, being photographed out in the streets with “I’M IN” banners. But by January, after the sort of political body swerve that ordinarily earns automatic disdain, she was not merely cheerleading for Brexit, but informing a country that was still seared in half by the question of Europe that divorce from the EU needed to be expedited, and needed to be total. There could be no half-in, half-out arrangement of the sort that you would have thought a 52-48 nation might go for. Instead, there had to be departure from both the single market and the customs union.
Far from proceeding with no-nonsense, business-like pragmatism, then, she has interpreted the 51.9 per cent to 48.1 per cent Leave vote as meaning that the British people as a whole are utterly determined to quit the EU at all costs, and utterly determined, too, that this should be done in a manner which gives priority to the control of immigration over the preservation of trading ties with the continent. The polling suggests that she is flat wrong on this last point: most voters put the economy first. And—just possibly—she might even be awry on the basic question of Brexit.
On the basic Leave/Remain question, and all the indications since last June have been that opinion has been remarkably steady. But the economy has been pretty steady too, with the wilder predictions of the Remainers about the immediate consequences of a Leave voter being exposed as wrong. But now that Article 50 has been triggered, and with growth far from spectacular, news such as that from Deutsche Bank, which has signalled it might soon ship 4,000 jobs away from Brexit Britain, could easily start sowing the seeds of doubt. And while we mustn’t put too much weight on any one poll, a new YouGov survey suggesting that by 45 per cent to 43 per cent Britain now believes that the Brexit vote was wrong certainly catches the eye.
In short, there are all sorts of reasons why Theresa May should be starting to look vulnerable, but no evidence whatever that she is. Why not? In no small part it is about electoral arithmetic. While 2015 was a narrow win for the Conservative party, it was a pretty decisive win for the Right. The Tories took 37 per cent of the UK vote, and Ukip 13 per cent, so a combined 50 per cent in all. Simply by bringing a large chunk of that Ukip vote back to the Tory fold, May’s Brexit government is now able to score well above the 40 per cent which has traditionally been deemed the threshold for a clear win.
But even more fundamentally, the mystery of May’s dominance is solved by remembering that all politics is relative. She might be a pretty traditional 60-year old politician, but at least she looks like a woman who knows the price of a pint of milk, and—after six years of David, George and the Bullingdon boys—that is not something to be sniffed at. Even more fundamentally, of course, May is not Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, as a smart and brusque figure who radiates orderly and unimaginative caution she is in some senses his very opposite. And while he’s despised by middle Britain to the extent that he appears to be, this is—on its own—political gold-dust. Quite why he is doing so disastrously is something I’ll turn to in my next post.