The clear lesson from 2017 concerns what you should do if you are the conservative prime minister of a tea-drinking nation who is faced with divisive constitutional questions at the same time as the largest opposition party appears to be in total disarray. Obviously – this is a no-brainer really – you should exploit your advantage and call a snap election.
Well, that was the lesson from the politics of Japan. Shinzo Abe triggered an early election and, contrary to predictions that the voters would punish him for cynical opportunism, his ruling coalition won almost a majority of the vote and took two-thirds of the seats in parliament. He now enjoys a refreshed mandate and an excellent chance of becoming the longest-serving Japanese prime minister of the postwar era. Eat your heart out, Theresa May.
She was hoping to do an Abe when she succumbed to the temptation of a 20-point poll lead and the desire to acquire her own mandate. The June election was the pivotal decision of the British political year. Its consequences reverberated through the rest of 2017 and will carry on mattering in 2018 and beyond.
The election turned out to be like one of those scenes in a science-fiction movie when the mad professor flips a switch and all the polarities are reversed. Up became down. If you were a Tory. Night turned into day. If you were a Corbynista. Strong and stable warped into weak and wobbly if you were Mrs May. She went into the campaign as a dominant prime minister poised to win the best victory for her party in 30 years and came out of it a humiliated leader who survives in office only because, and only for so long as, her party cannot agree that anyone else would be better. Jeremy Corbyn went into the election as the punchline of every Tory joke and came out of it as the scream in every Tory nightmare.
Because the election went so badly wrong for Mrs May, a consensus has cemented around the view that she made an epic error, a massive miscalculation that will haunt her for the rest of her life and spook any future prime minister who flirts with the idea of an early poll. That makes people neglectful of the extremely persuasive reasons that induced Mrs May to take the biggest gamble of her career. One reason was that it didn’t feel like much of a gamble. It looked like a sure thing for the Tories. Whatever they say now, just about everyone thought a Tory victory was a dead cert, including Mr Corbyn and his inner circle.
It is easy to forget, but she called the election with higher personal approval ratings for a party leader than Tony Blair enjoyed on the eve of his 1997 landslide. At the local elections in May, held just over a month before the general, the Tories romped to a crushing victory. So all those who thought that it would be a triumph for the Tories and a disaster for Labour had apparently solid evidence for their beliefs. It was the campaign wot done it. The Tories tried to make it a presidential contest, only to find that they had been worshipping a cult of no personality. Labour had a much more battle-ready operation on the ground and in social media, along with a more positive set of offers to the electorate. The Tories presented a manifesto that could not have been more skilfully crafted to energise opposition, alienate chunks of Conservative core support and repel swing voters.
The idea of an early election was not itself the problem – the problem was its atrocious execution. Even then, the Tories emerged from their worst campaign in living memory with a higher vote share than Labour and a 55-seat advantage in the Commons. Had a few thousand votes been distributed differently, Mrs May could, despite herself, have acquired a respectable majority and things would look rather different today.
This is a source of hope for Tories as they peer into the mists of the future. If they could fight such a terrible campaign under a leader so hopeless at retail politics and still end up ahead of Labour, what might they be able to achieve under a fresh chief presiding over a properly run campaign, with some attractive propositions for the voters? This is not an entirely ludicrous theory, but a lot will have to go well for the Conservatives to make it more than a pipe dream. First, they have to get through 2018, the most critical year for Brexit, without falling apart as a party or making a calamity of the negotiations. Then, they have to rejuvenate themselves in office, never an easy task for a governing party. They can agree that Mrs May should not be allowed to lead them into the next election, but they don’t know who should replace her and nor can they be sure that their next leader will turn out to be appealing. Nor are they anywhere near to agreement on a policy suite with attraction to the voters who rejected them in June, especially younger generations and the more socially liberal segment of the electorate. The Tory hope that they can revive their fortunes is not matched by anything you could call a plan.
The Labour leadership does have a strategy for the next election. That strategy is near identical to the one that they pursued this year. Although Labour went down to its third successive defeat, Mr Corbyn and his admirers have persuaded themselves that it was a moral victory because the party’s performance was so much better than expectations. This convinces them that more of the same will push Labour over the line at the next contest. For right or wrong, the election result has been taken as an endorsement of both Mr Corbyn’s leadership and his policy platform. There is no dispute that he tapped into weariness with austerity and the pervasive feeling that many are not getting a fair crack at life because economic rewards are heavily skewed towards the most affluent.
The assumption of the Labour leadership is that these discontents will still be present at the next election and even if Brexit is relatively benign for the economy. If the Tories manage to stretch out this parliament all the way to 2022, they will have been in government for 12 years. That gives Labour people reason to think that the yearning for change will be even more potent by the time the country next makes its choice of government. While this sounds plausible, there is an underlying risk to this strategy. It makes the presumption that the next election will be fought in a similar context and along much the same lines as the last one. That is a rather daring assumption, when the political environment is so volatile and a lot of the electorate have become footloose in their allegiances.
One of the stand-out facts of the June contest is that a third of the voters at the 2015 election switched party or stayed at home when it came to 2017. Party support since the election appears to have been static. Most of the polls have Labour and the Tories pretty much neck and neck.
This disguises the instability of both their electoral coalitions. Mrs May clung on to office with the support of people who really don’t like the Tories but are even more repelled by the thought of having Mr Corbyn in Number 10 and a self-declared admirer of Karl Marx at the Treasury. The Tories also had the support, although not as much of it as they hoped for, of a chunk of Brexit-supporting former Labour voters. It is anyone’s guess where those voters might go once Britain has left the EU.
The Conservatives were undone by their hubris in June. A danger for Labour is that it repeats that Tory mistake of taking the electorate for granted. Labour enjoyed its June surge because many people responded positively to the Corbyn prospectus, but Labour could only achieve a 40-point vote share with the help of voters who backed the party despite its leader and his programme, sometimes because these voters had been told by Labour candidates that they could vote for the party safe in the knowledge that it could not possibly win power.
An important slice of Labour’s support is made up of voters primarily motivated by a desire to punish the Tories for Brexit – and especially for seeking to pursue a hard Brexit. I remain to be convinced that all the subscribers to the Financial Times in Kensington & Chelsea who voted Labour in 2017 will do so at an election where there is a prospect of John McDonnell becoming chancellor.
The kaleidoscope of British politics has been shaken repeatedly. It was churned by the 2010 election, which produced our first postwar coalition; by the 2015 election, which gave David Cameron his unanticipated victory; by the Brexit referendum, which shattered assumptions; and then by this year’s election, which again upset expectations. It is a good bet that there will be another shake-up of allegiances once Britain has formally departed the EU.
One of Mrs May’s gravest strategic miscalculations was to assume that the 2017 election would be like the 2015 election, only more so. She made the classic mistake of fighting the last war. Will the next election be a replay of the 2017 election, only more so? That is quite the gamble when so much is in such uncertain flux.