When Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, called a snap general election on April 18, surprise was complete. This was precisely what she had promised she would not do. But shock soon dissipated. On all available evidence, the prime minister’s volte face made sense. Her party was massively ahead in the polls. Opposition Labor politicians despised their leader, the 68-year-old socialist hardliner Jeremy Corbyn, at least as much as they disliked May. The stage appeared set for a landslide Conservative victory that would send May into Brexit negotiations with a personal mandate to prove she spoke for the British people. So certain did this outcome look that nine Labor MPs defied their leader to vote against the parliamentary motion required to authorize the election.
Spool forward six weeks and Britain’s political landscape is transformed. Corbyn, for most of his career a scarecrow lookalike with the leadership talent of a lemming and terrorist-sympathizers for friends, has demonstrated formidable campaign skills. Polls have narrowed so sharply that one projection—by pollsters YouGov—shows May’s Conservatives could lose their majority. The pound, which soared to a post-Brexit high against the euro when May called the election, has tumbled as confidence in a Conservative victory wanes.
So, the big question being asked in the UK and European capitals is: Could May lose this election to a Labor Party whose manifesto is as socialist as the 1983 version, notorious as “the longest suicide note in history,” which handed Margaret Thatcher an unassailable majority?
Corbyn has defied expectations. He appears calm, relaxed and, crucially, smart as he tours the country speaking to select audiences of enthusiastic, mostly young supporters. His shabby patched jackets have been replaced by a sharp blue suit. He has had his hair cut. He smiles a lot more than he used to. He is unfailingly polite to interviewers. His campaign, masterminded by the former Guardian columnist Seumas Milne, eschews all personal attacks. May might call the Labor leader a vile excrescence unfit to dig a sewer – she has come close – but Corbyn does not retaliate. For him, politics is about policies, not personalities. He remains above the fray.
And on the left of British politics a hope that appeared too forlorn to contemplate has begun to be expressed. In the Guardian on Wednesday, Dan Roberts compared Corbyn to Bernie Sanders: “Despite the lower-budget feel of the British version,” he wrote “this movie is getting a remake. Here too, a leader who was at first ignored, then ridiculed and now reviled by the establishment, has seen a last minute surge in the opinion polls that threatens to upset a complacent opponent.” Everywhere Corbyn speaks, his slogan, “For the many, not the few,” is held aloft by passionate student supporters. His pledges to tax the rich to fund better healthcare and to nationalize key industries appeal to a generation that does not remember how such policies fared in the past.
It turns out Labor’s far-left manifesto has inspired rather than divided its natural supporters. Meanwhile, May has alarmed instinctive Conservatives by telling them hard truths about taxes and public services that her predecessor left unmentioned. Milne, condemned by many as a Marxist zealot who prefers ideological purity to power, has proved as good a strategist as May’s campaign guru, Lynton Crosby, “the Australian Karl Rove” who has delivered victory after victory for his clients.
But caution is essential. A crucial part of the story is simply that Labor under Corbyn has not collapsed in chaos. The party of the left has operated so much better than expected that its absence of failure has begun to look a little like success. So dramatically has its performance improved that Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former Svengali and one of Corbyn’s most vitriolic critics, has begun to pay the Labor leader compliments on Twitter. Strange days, indeed. Still, all the hard evidence suggests that the Conservatives will win.
An ICM poll published Wednesday put the Conservatives at 45% and Labor at 33%, a clear lead of 12 points. That’s down 10% since April 18, but it would still give Labor one of its worst election results since 1945. And that assessment ignores “shy Tories,” former Labor voters too timid to tell pollsters they have changed allegiance.
The astounding probability is that May will emerge from this election as a diminished prime minister less trusted by her party than she was when the campaign began. She is lampooned as a leader lacking in personality who has tried to create a cult of personality. Meanwhile her opponent, written off before he started, will stand taller as the leader of a Labor Party he has reinvigorated against the odds.
Tim Luckhurst is professor of journalism at the University of Kent and a former editor of the Scotsman, Scotland’s national newspaper