Theresa May's Incredible Shrinking Poll Numbers

What happened to her lead?

Prime Minister Theresa May looks on during a general election campaign visit to a tool factory in Kelso, Scotland, on June 5, 2017.
Prime Minister Theresa May looks on during a general election campaign visit to a tool factory in Kelso, Scotland, on June 5, 2017.  (Ben Stansall / Reuters)

When Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May stepped out onto Downing Street on April 18 to call a snap election for June 8, no one expected it. Since becoming prime minister in July 2016 after David Cameron’s sudden resignation, she had made clear, on six separate occasions, that she would not call one. It was obvious, she insisted, that Britain’s departure from the European Union required stability, a spell free from the demands and distractions of an election campaign when “the will of the British people” could be fulfilled.

But then suddenly, on that warm spring day, the reason for not calling a general election—Brexit—became the reason for calling one. Opposing parties, she now argued, were obstructing “the will of the British people,” a phrase she is fond of using, and, with an unprecedented 20-point lead in the polls and popularity ratings higher than almost any prime minister before her, it was time to annihilate the competition. It was time, that is, to “Crush the Saboteurs,” as The Daily Mail, May’s cheerleader-in-chief, declared on its front page. (In February, the newspaper’s political editor, James Slack, became May’s chief of staff.) This wouldn’t be an election to elect the next government; it would be an election to elect Theresa Maya “vanity election,” a “sham,” a “fake,” in the words of her detractors, a cynical move for her to cash in her chips while she could. The predicted majority—200 seats, by some counts—was too tempting to turn down.

Since taking office 10 months ago, May has forged her name as a fearsome, authoritative leader, adored by the tabloids for taking on the Brexit beacon with glee—“Brexit means Brexit,” she famously declared. She pandered to an older sense of British identity, played up the Margaret Thatcher comparisons, and drove the party to the right, hoovering up UKIP support in the process. These weren’t just tactics: The cheap xenophobia seemed to come naturally. “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” she said to cheers. Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen accused her of stealing their ideas. But despite her divisive drive to cut immigration and reject any responsibility for refugees, she was still heralded as a “unity” figure who would guide Britain through the roiling waters of EU negotiations.

That was the pitch, anyway, and the question for voters was simply: Who do you want to lead the Brexit negotiations? May’s team put out a slate of slogans that offered an easy, unthinking answer. She offered Strong and Stable Leadership, while a government led by Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn would be a Coalition of Chaos. For those who thought a Corbyn victory was impossible: We cannot be complacent. The polls have been wrong before and they could be wrong again. Corbyn could still win. These were the instructions, the party lines to be repeated ad infinitum, ritual-like, like a rain dance with the promise of electoral nirvana.

Curiously, through the campaign, the words “Conservative Party” have barely appeared on banners or on buses; the vote was for “Theresa and her team.” The plan was to soften long-standing hostilities against the party, capitalizing on May’s broad appeal as a woman who “gets the job done.” Some branded it a “presidential” election. Others called her campaign a personality cult. Either way, May was happy to play the part—in the beginning, at least.

But then suddenly things began unravelling. And how. It started with what many saw as her first campaign policy: an absurd declaration to bring back fox-hunting, revoking a ban on foxes being devoured by dogs that eight out of 10 Brits were said to support keeping in place. Soon followed a U-turn on an unpopular manifesto pledge, dubbed the “Dementia Tax.” The plan was to make seniors pay means-tested contributions towards their own social care—not entirely unreasonable—but without any cap on how much they might have to spend. May swiftly backtracked on the latter part, vaguely alluding to the fact that a cap would be introduced. The press lapped it up: It was framed as the first time a party had reversed on a manifesto policy before an election.

In the fallout, one television reporter suggested to May that she was “weak and wobbly, not strong and stable.” It caught on. Another interviewer, Jeremy Paxman, a self-confessed Tory supporter, laid into her with even stronger words. “If I was sitting in Brussels,” he said, “and I was looking at you as the person I had to negotiate with, I’d be thinking ‘she’s a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire.’ Isn’t that right?” His audience laughed, gasped, and cheered.

In fairness, May’s “stability” was always an invention. As early as January, the Economist had dubbed her “Theresa Maybe” for her lack of any clear strategy on Brexit and habit for backing off key promises, not least the election itself. But this was more than just a nickname now. Her ineptitude had become the main event. Her sternness turned to nervousness; her convictions became calamities. This continues to be the case now, just days before the election. She has become so frightened of saying something wrong that she almost ceased to speak at all, avoiding all televised debates and interviews where possible. The Iron Lady had been rebooted as the Robot Lady: endlessly repeating her programmed phrases, incapable of directly answering questions, and occasionally breaking into a strange, paranoid laugh that suggested a glitch in her software.

The two tragic terrorist attacks on London and Manchester have slightly altered the mood of the campaign. Overall, the shift in concerns—away from future hopes and towards present fears—is likely to work in May’s favor, even if she would never have wished for such a turn. She has been able to present herself, once again, as a stern “unity” leader, transcending party politics for the sake of the nation.

Yet even this respite has proved fleeting. A new narrative has taken root. As home secretary between 2010 and 2016, national security was May’s domain. During that stretch, she cut the size of the police force, despite warnings not to do so. (She dismissed worries over slashing the force’s numbers as “crying wolf.”) Corbyn has called on her to resign. So, too, has a former Conservative Party advisor. May’s typically robotic response has been to re-invoke the Corbyn-as-threat-to-national-security and the Corbyn-as-terrorist-sympathizer slogans. These attacks rely on wild, deliberate misrepresentations of Corbyn’s stance on the IRA, and past, favorable remarks about Hamas and Hezbollah for which he has since apologized. A resolute pacifist, he would never support the violent strategies of such groups, even if he might hold some sympathy for their struggles.

Where possible, she also takes shelter in her own tautology: Brexit means Brexit. This was meant to be a “Brexit election,” after all, and she seems to think that if she can say “Brexit” enough times, she can return it to its course. “You can only deliver Brexit if you believe in Brexit,” she recently declared. But almost 12 months on, we’re still yet to hear exactly what Brexit means.

The beauty of May’s meaningless aphorisms is that Brexit can then be used to justify virtually anything. After initially avoiding calling an election because of Brexit, and then going ahead and calling an election because of Brexit, May now says she can’t campaign because of, well, Brexit. So when Corbyn challenged her to a televised leadership debate, hardly an unusual demand in a democracy, Theresa May said no, sneering that “he ought to be paying more attention to thinking about Brexit negotiations than appearing on television—that’s what I’m doing.”

In every poll, May’s lead has shrunk dramatically. The latest projection by YouGov predicts that she will take 304 of 650 seats, 22 short of a majority and 26 less than the majority she enjoyed before the election. While British electoral projections should always be treated with caution (the system is notorious for dividing seats disproportionately to the vote) the transformation has been enormous.

May cannot take sole responsibility for this collapse, however. Corbyn has delivered an inspiring and surprisingly coordinated campaign. Against May, he looks comfortable in his own skin and genuinely believes the policies of his party. The public has responded favorably, and for a fleeting moment the left has been allowed to dream—its own kind of victory.

For May, by contrast, it now looks like she loses, whatever the result. A landslide majority is still possible, but her authority and stature have taken a lasting hit. If she wins, neither her future or the future of Britain look bright. As Tom Crewe examined in a comprehensive essay for the London Review of Books last year, many councils are set to lose more than 60 percent of their incomes by 2020. Local bus and housing services, mostly used by the less well-off, have seen their budgets cut by a quarter since 2010, when the Conservative Party took power. The number of families identified as homeless has increased by 42 percent in the same period. In 1981, renting a council property required less than 7 percent of an average income; in 2015, for a private tenancy, the figure was 52 percent (72 per cent in London), higher than anywhere else in Europe. No European country is so unequal, either.

Meanwhile, as the thrill of leaving the EU fades into the impracticalities of living alone, Britain is left mid-Brexit, bleak and blundering, neither sovereign nor a member state. One foot is firmly out the door, the other firmly rooted inside; too stubborn and proud to turn back, yet all too aware of the long, arduous road ahead. In a such a state, it is the British who now seem like citizens of nowhere. But May won’t care for all this, so long as she’s at the helm.