Theresa May’s ‘self-inflicted election’

May Day: The prime minister has emphasised her personal reputation in this campaign. © Getty

In a speech yesterday, Theresa May told Britons that she is their only hope for “strong, stable leadership”. But this campaign has highlighted her weaknesses as well as her strengths …

“Strong, stable leadership” read the slogan on the lectern. And as Theresa May spoke to the media yesterday morning, she repeated those words like a mantra. In the wake of Saturday’s terrorist attack, she emphasised her record on security. Ahead of the Brexit talks with Europe, she stressed her experience as a negotiator.

Yesterday’s speech was a return to the core theme of the prime minister’s campaign. In April she called the first snap election since 1974: May declared that “every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger” in the Brexit talks. “Strong and stable” became her catchphrase.

From the outset, she framed the election as a choice between herself and Jeremy Corbyn, who — when the campaign started — was one of the most unpopular opposition leaders in British history. When she unveiled the Conservative programme, she called it “my manifesto”. The media initially predicted a landslide victory for her.

As so often in politics, the wind changed. As journalist Ian Dunt argues in a fascinating article, May’s refusal to detail her plan for Brexit allowed Labour to shift the debate onto their turf: welfare. To make things worse, she was obliged to scrap a very controversial social care tax in “her” manifesto. No party leader had been forced into such a dramatic U-turn during a campaign before.

May’s approval rating plummeted. The Conservatives’ poll leads slipped from double to single digits. Even right-leaning publications began voicing doubts about the prime minister. She had gone from “strong and stable” to “weak and wobbly”, as one reporter put it.

Meanwhile Corbyn, an experienced campaigner, was gaining popularity. Last week, after signing up for a televised debate at the eleventh hour, he called on May to do the same. When she failed to turn up, she was heavily criticised by all the party leaders. #WheresTheresa began to trend.

The prime minister did not expect such a tough campaign. Was she right to call the election?

Oh, snap!

Absolutely, say some. Ignore the excitement of the media — including the right-wing press, who want to scare their readers into voting. May’s victory on Thursday has never been in doubt. She will come away with an enlarged majority and a clear mandate to deal with Brexit as she sees fit. Calling the election was a no-brainer.

It isn’t that simple, reply others. No matter the result on Thursday, May’s personal brand has been tarnished. She chose to make the campaign about herself, so she gets the blame for its failures. And she has wasted two months that could have been spent preparing for Brexit. This has been bad for her and bad for the country.

You Decide

  1. Who would you vote for on Thursday, and why?
  2. How important are slogans in political campaigns?


  1. Come up with a new slogan for the party you would vote for on Thursday. Make sure it is catchy and sums up what the party stands for.
  2. Imagine you were granted an interview with both May and Corbyn tomorrow. Come up with five questions to put to them both. Compare yours with your classmates’.

Some People Say...

“A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.”

— James Freeman Clarke

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
What each party wants to do in government, more or less. They have set out their main positions and policies in their manifestos (although parties often break manifesto promises). To find out more, see our party guides in Become An Expert. As far as Thursday’s results go, we can draw on a range of polls, which give anything between a 3% and a 14% lead to the Conservatives.
What do we not know?
Thursday’s results, to state the obvious. Polls can help guide our predictions, but they are often wrong. They failed to predict Brexit, Trump’s victory and the Conservative majority at the last general election. The polling companies have made changes to their methods since then, mainly regarding turnout probabilities. We will soon find out how much of a difference this has made.

Word Watch

Snap election
Called earlier than expected.
The Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, won a majority of three seats in the election he called eight months after the last one (which had resulted in a minority Labour government).
See the Foreign Policy link in Become An Expert.
Social care tax
The elderly requiring care, residential or at home, would have to pay for it up until their last £100,000 in assets. Opposition parties dubbed it the “dementia tax”.
An Opinium poll on Saturday showed: 38% of respondents have a more negative opinion of May than at the start of the campaign, 21% more positive. For Corbyn, the figures were 16% more negative, 40% more positive.
The Economist, which tends to back the Conservatives in elections, endorsed the Liberal Democrats. The Sun supported May but warned she “must spell out why voters should choose her — not being Jeremy Corbyn is not enough”.
Preparing for Brexit
Triggering Article 50 in March, Parliament officially set off a two-year time limit within which the terms of Brexit must be negotiated with the EU.


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