When Theresa May called a snap general election, many assumed the prime minister and her ruling Conservative party would romp home. Armed with a decisive mandate, Mrs May would be in the strongest possible position to open Brexit negotiations, the biggest national challenge since 1945.
With one week to go before polling day, the 2017 campaign has not gone to script. The polls have tightened. Far from being strong and stable, Mrs May has looked curiously brittle. She has failed to offer a credible picture of what life outside the EU’s single market and customs union will look like, let alone the economic trade-offs that will inevitably form part of the Brexit end-game. The opposition Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been equally vague. Both sides have engaged in a conspiracy of silence.
This is deeply unsatisfactory. Britain’s departure from the EU is happening at a time of great geopolitical uncertainty. The western alliance is eroding due to US President Donald Trump’s erratic foreign policy, combined with a legacy of European fecklessness. Paradoxically, Brexit and Mr Trump may be propelling greater unity within the EU, especially after Emmanuel Macron’s win in the French presidential election. A more solid European front built on a renewed Franco-German alliance is not necessarily good news for the UK.
In these circumstances, it is a sad indictment on the state of Britain that neither of the main party leaders is particularly impressive. The Financial Times has no fixed party allegiances. This publication stands for a liberal agenda: a small state, free trade, free markets and social justice. Neither Mrs May nor Mr Corbyn stands four-square behind these principles. Neither has offered tax and spending plans that are credible, given the short-term risks facing the economy.
Mrs May recognises the inequalities that need addressing in Britain and the divisions that need healing. But the Conservative manifesto is an amalgam of the sublime (“the great meritocracy”) and the ill-judged or badly presented (plans for social care reform). Proposed interventions on energy and telecommunications markets and worker representatives on boards mirror the market meddling of Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader. The manifesto is overloaded with legislative commitments that cannot possibly be fulfilled in the next parliament, given the preponderance of Brexit.
Most concerning is the renewed Tory commitment to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”. If fulfilled, this would damage the UK’s flexible labour market and harm economic growth. It is hard to reconcile the pledge with Mrs May’s promise of an outward-facing “Global Britain”. The pitch was intended to appeal to stray UK Independence party voters but it is best described as “open for business, closed for foreigners”.
Yet the alternative to Mrs May is worse. Mr Corbyn is a fringe figure who has spent his entire political career in opposition — to his own Labour leadership. Despite his recent media makeover, he is a pacifist relic of the 1970s, in hock to the trade unions, with no grip on economic issues. It is no accident that the arrival of Mr Corbyn and his hard-left supporters in mainstream politics has coincided with a revival of anti-Semitism and misogyny. Labour’s team are unfit for government, let alone the delicate Brexit talks. The Liberal Democrats have failed to make an impact with their pledge of a second EU referendum. All the evidence points to the end of European-style coalition and the return of two-party politics, with the exception of Scotland where the independence movement remains slightly diminished but a potent force.
Faced with such uncertainty at home and abroad, Mrs May is the safer bet. But accepting her as prime minister does not amount to a blank cheque. A substantially increased Conservative majority, even a landslide, could lead to an increase in the number of hardline Eurosceptics, who advocate a crash exit from the EU, a contemporary version of the Charge of the Light Brigade.
If Mrs May is returned, her management style must change. Her inner circle should be widened beyond the current Praetorian guard. The next few years will require the best and brightest and, yes, experts. Mrs May’s gamble on a snap election may pay off. Her resolve on Brexit is not in doubt; but her ability to deliver the best deal for Britain in terms of the closest possible relationship with the EU is worryingly unclear.