LONDON — When Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May kicked off her reelection campaign on April 18, she had every reason to be confident.
Her Conservative Party had maintained a consistent lead over its left-wing Labour opponents ever since the Brexit referendum last June. At the time the campaign began, they led the national polls by more than 16 points; Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was so unpopular that a plurality of voters in his own party viewed him negatively.
Flash-forward to Monday — just three days before the election on June 8. The Conservative lead has been cut nearly in half, down to 8.3 percent in the BritainElects poll aggregator’s tally. It’s a really dramatic surge in light of the past few months of polling:
This dramatic change in the race has stunned observers here in the UK, many of whom had written off Labour under Corbyn — a far-left firebrand known for courting controversy — as doomed to a historic defeat.
Now that seems unlikely, raising tough questions about what happened. Is this buyer’s remorse after the Brexit referendum? Anger over terrorist attacks under May’s watch? Are Corbyn’s policies just way more popular than previously thought?
Experts on UK politics say that the Tory collapse is, first and foremost, May’s own fault. She has run a disastrous campaign filled with unpopular policies and embarrassing flip-flops that have seriously shaken British confidence in her ability to govern. Meanwhile, the public’s view of Corbyn was so dim that there really wasn’t anywhere else to go but up — and his relatively competent campaign trail performance has helped that.
“For Jeremy Corbyn, a lot of the members of the public had this perception of him as a complete disaster,” Tom Clarkson, vice president of the political consultancy firm BritainThinks, says. “He’s outperformed the really, really low expectations.”
To be clear, May’s Conservatives are still heavily, heavily favored to win a majority on Thursday. They’re still ahead in the polls by a healthy margin, and May is still viewed more favorably than Corbyn is overall in opinion polls. Moreover, the basic setup of British politics gives the Conservatives an intrinsic advantage in the 2017 race: Their supporters are more likely to vote and tend to live in more strategically important areas.
But there’s no denying that things have gotten much more interesting. And the terrorist attack in London, which has quickly become the center of both campaigns’ attention, may well change the race yet again.
“My hunch is that the Conservatives will win a majority, [though] it won’t be as big as some were predicting,” Matt Williams, a political scientist at the University of Oxford, tells me. “But it’s very difficult to predict these things.”
The Conservatives moved away from Brexit, and Labour ran a better campaign than expected
In the UK system, elections don’t only happen as part of a regular schedule. The prime minister, with the approval of two-thirds of the current Parliament, can call for what’s called a “snap” election, where a national election is held off schedule. That’s what happened this time around: May called a snap election on April 18, Parliament agreed, and the date of the vote was set for June 8.
This made sense at the time: Her poll numbers were sky-high, which meant she had a good chance to increase her slim 17-seat majority in Parliament. It helped that the election appeared certain to focus on Brexit — an issue on which the Conservatives, who under May had come to champion departure from the EU, held a huge advantage, as Labour’s position was wishy-washy and confusing.
For the first month of the election campaign, it looked like this gamble was paying off. The numbers jumped around a bit, but the gap between Labour and the Conservatives was basically the same huge margin it was when the election began.
Yet the Conservatives managed to shoot themselves in the foot anyway.
“The Conservatives moved away from Brexit during the campaign,” Clarkson says. “You could say that was a mistake, because they don’t lead as strongly on other issues as they do on Brexit.”
Some of the issues the Conservatives chose to talk about were especially unpopular. On May 9, for instance, the prime minister came out in favor of legalizing fox hunting — a traditional, but cruel, pastime of the British upper classes that had been banned by a Labour government in the mid-2000s. The comments made her out of touch with ordinary British concerns, interested in the cultural priorities of the rich rather than what really matters to most people.
The critical turning point, according to both Clarkson and Williams, came on May 19 — when the Conservatives released their manifesto (the British equivalent of a party platform). That day, the Conservatives led Labour by 47.2 to 31 — a 16.2-point margin.
The margin started dropping almost immediately after that day, falling more than 6 full points down to roughly 10.1 (44.8 to 34.7). The race has continued to tighten since, as you can see in the following zoomed-in chart:
The key problem with the Conservative manifesto was a proposal to require individuals who require in-home support services, like a nurse, to pay for these services on their own if their combined savings and assets, including property, total 100,000 pounds (roughly $130,000) or higher. Currently, the UK’s ”social care” system pays for this kind of in-home assistance for many more people than would be covered under the Conservatives’ plan.
The proposal, which reportedly was added to the manifesto at the last minute, was an immediate disaster. Critics dubbed it the “dementia tax,” as many people who rely on social care are elderly individuals afflicted with dementia. It came across as unnecessarily cruel, once again playing into a longstanding sense that the Conservatives aren’t really interested in helping Britain’s most vulnerable.
The criticism of the “dementia tax” was so overwhelming that, three days later, it was removed from the Conservative manifesto. This actually managed to make things worse: It suggested that May, who was selling herself as a strong hand during the Brexit negotiations, wasn’t to be trusted.
“I think that individually goes some way to explaining the narrowing of the polls,” Clarkson says. “Theresa May previously had always been perceived as very decisive, a very strong leader with firm convictions.”
Anti-May sentiment has risen since. The fourth-most-popular song in the UK singles charts at this moment, by an artist named Captain Ska, is titled “Liar, Liar.” The chorus — “She’s a liar, liar / No, no you can’t trust her” — is of course referring to the prime minister.
After a Conservative misstep of this magnitude, all Corbyn had to do to rise in the polls was not do something worse. But he did one better than that: The Labour leader actually performed relatively well in high-profile media interviews, like a live grilling from popular TV host Jeremy Paxman. It was this steady performance in the face of Conservative blunders, more than his actual policy ideas, that helped turn around Corbyn’s public image.
“Very little of the Labour manifesto has gotten through to most voters,” Clarkson says, citing interviews his firm has conducted with swing voters around the country. “[Corbyn] has come across as the complete opposite of Theresa May: He has some warmth, and he’s prepared to offer some quite funny jokes. Theresa May comes across as kind of a robot.”
The Conservative lead is still quite robust
But Corbyn’s supporters shouldn’t get too excited yet.
For one thing, an 8-point lead is still rather large. BritainElects projects that if the election were held now, the Conservatives would gain 27 seats in Parliament above their current number, while Labour would lose another 18. This isn’t the crushing defeat for Labour that many were expecting at the beginning of the campaign, but it would be a solid win for the Conservatives.
There’s also reason to believe the polls are underestimating May’s support: Corbyn’s recent surge seems to be coming from on a somewhat unusual support base.
“A lot of surge in the few week comes from people who are previous nonvoters and people who are younger,” says Clarkson. “Those people are thoroughly less likely to turn out on Thursday.”
Finally, the national polls don’t fully capture the reality of the election. There are also local dynamics at play in constituencies — the British equivalent of a congressional district — that end up giving the Conservatives an advantage.
Labour’s voters tend to be younger and better educated. The Conservatives, by contrast, have worked successfully to appeal to more working-class voters in traditional Labour strongholds like the northeast of England that emerged as Brexit bastions in last year’s referendum.
The result is a kind of sorting of British politics: Labour voters have become more concentrated in a handful of constituencies in cities, while Conservatives have gotten stronger in a much larger number of constituencies.
“I don’t know that this recent surge is going to translate in gains to the Labour Party, because of the nature of the British electoral system,” Williams says. “It doesn’t necessarily matter how popular you are in polls; it matters how well you do in your constituency.”
One Labour activist I spoke to on the campaign trail said he was fairly confident that his national party wouldn’t win for this reason. Even if the poll surge continued and Labour ended up outright winning the popular vote, he thinks the Conservatives would still retain a majority of seats in Parliament — a bit like how Trump won the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote, or how Democrats consistently lose the House despite winning a national majority of votes in House elections.
While the Labour surge is clearly real, it’s still extremely unlikely it will translate into an electoral victory for the Corbyn camp.
Terrorism as X factor
What we don’t know, however, is how the horrific events in London on Saturday night have changed the race’s dynamics.
This was the second terrorist attack during this short campaign. The last one, the bombing in Manchester, did not appear to affect the course of the election. According to Clarkson, voters saw it as a one-off — a horrific event, but the sort of thing that can’t always be stopped. Neither Corbyn nor May made it into a major feature of their campaign message.
The London attack appears to be different. The Conservatives are attacking Corbyn as weak on terrorism: In the 1980s, British intelligence reportedly opened a file on him due to links to the terrorist Irish Republican Army (IRA). More recently, in 2009, he invited members of the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah to speak in Parliament. “It will be my pleasure and my honor to host an event in Parliament where our friends from Hezbollah will be speaking,” Corbyn said.
Corbyn’s camp has struck back, blaming the growing terrorism problem on cuts to police funding pushed through by the Conservative government. The Manchester attacker was reported to the police five times prior to the attack, but the police apparently did not have the resources to investigate.
“I have to say I was pretty surprised, and slightly disappointed, that the parties ... were using these events to damage their opponents,” Williams said. “I had thought that British politics had a slightly higher sense of propriety — that they wouldn’t take advantage of these horrible events for their own political benefit.”
Normally, the Conservatives would clearly benefit from this debate. Polls have shown for some time that they’re the party with a stronger reputation on security and terrorism issues.
But Theresa May was home secretary, a cabinet position responsible for (among other things) internal security, prior to being prime minister. There’s a real argument that Britain’s terrorism problem manifested on her watch; that she’s had ample time to do something about it, and failed to do so.
So between the Conservatives’ self-inflicted wounds and the raging debate over terrorism, the UK campaign has entered a new stage. While Labour’s chances remain extremely slim, it’s hard to say “never” in this kind of unsettled environment.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the nature of the "dementia tax," defining the threshold as 100,000 pounds in yearly income rather than 100,000 pounds in total assets.