Ben Lowry: Theresa May had good reason to be hesitant about calling this election

Prime Minister Theresa May taking part  in BBC1's Question Time Leaders Special presented by David Dimbleby from the campus of the University of York on Friday. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Prime Minister Theresa May taking part in BBC1's Question Time Leaders Special presented by David Dimbleby from the campus of the University of York on Friday. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

If a political leader takes a long time to make key decisions, they are indecisive.

If they make immediate decisions, they are cocksure or pig headed or not listening.

In truth, intelligent and wise leaders are always hesitant about making huge choices.

Some brilliant, far-sighted leaders plunge with confidence into the right course of action. Winston Churchill saw the threat from Nazi Germany years before some of his colleagues did, but was unable to do anything about it until he was decisively proven right and Neville Chamberlain felt obliged to step down (a full eight months after the Second World War began).

But such situations,and such leaders, are rare.

Nothing better illustrates the difficulties with making any big decision than the way this general election has turned against Theresa May.

There could hardly have been a safer political bet than to call a snap election now when Mrs May was doing so well personally in the polls and when her party was so far ahead of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.

The Copeland by election seemed to confirm that Labour was in the most hopeless situation since 1945 and that Corbyn was doomed as a mainstream political leader.

Mrs May will have known that if she had not called an election, and if things had started to go badly for her in the Brexit negotiations, if the Conservative majority had begun to wane through by-election defeats and perhaps even the odd backbench defection, if her personal ratings had begun to wane, if Labour had finally ditched Mr Corbyn and rallied round a more plausible leader, then everyone would have said: how weak and foolish she was not to seek a mandate in the Spring of 2017 when her victory was assured.

They said as much about Gordon Brown, when he failed to go to the country in the autumn of 2007 as the newly installed prime minister, when he was doing well in the opinion polls.

But in politics even sure bets can suddenly go wrong.

Gordon Brown’s lead then was much smaller than Mrs May’s lead was at Easter, yet Mr Brown knew that if he lost seats compared to 2005 he would be seen to have failed.

Mrs May is now battling to even increase the number of Tory MPs, when a few weeks ago an overall majority of 100+ seemed assured.

The Conservatives remain ahead of Labour in the opinion polls, but there has been a clear shift to Labour.

Mrs May is not coming across particularly well.

Mr Corbyn is now confident, and his decision to appear in the debate made her absence seem cowardly (the original thinking was that Mrs May could be damaged by a debate, and might lose her prime ministerial authority).

Polls are now consistently predicting Labour will get more than the 30.4% of the vote Ed Miliband got in 2015.

If that happens, then the supposedly disastrous Mr Corbyn will have outpolled the election performances of his two predecessors – Mr Brown in 2010, who got 29.0% of the vote, and Mr Miliband five years later.

It may well be that the polls are under-estimating Conservative support, as they did in 1992 and in 2015.

It is also possible they under-estimate the opposition.

By a crude calculation based on my experience of general elections, about one in three produces a surprise.

The first that I have some memory of, 1983, was no surprise, and nor was 1987 (despite a Tory poll wobble).

The 1992 return of John Major was a surprise, 1997 was not so much (except that the Labour victory was more decisive than predicted).

The elections of 2001 and 2005 were no surprise, while 2010 was a little more so.

In 2015 there was a surprise, when the Conservatives won an overall majority that almost no-one foresaw.

Imagine this year is a surprise. What might it be?

It is hardly likely to be a Tory majority even more vast than everyone first expected (say a 200 seat margin).

The more likely ‘surprise’ was that the opposition did better than expected.

I know English Conservatives who are dismayed at Brexit. Where do they go? Polls suggest almost all are still Tory but I wonder if more of them are flirting Lib Dem (as is Boris’s sister Rachel) than polls show.

There was always a chance in the post banking crisis age that Corbyn would resonate, as he seems to be.

Theresa May’s problems in this campaign are linked to her attempt to bring honesty to the debate about social care. It backfired badly.

We urgently need leaders who talk candidly about fiscal responsibility, and the ‘dementia tax’ debacle has set that back badly.

Mrs May’s target now will be to at least increase the Tory number of seats. If she does that by even one or two, she is vindicated to some degree. If she does much better than that on June 9, then she will seem to be fully vindicated, given this late scare.

But if her overall total of seats drops by even one, she will struggle to survive as Tory leader.

Whatever Mrs May’s shortcomings, it is hard to see anyone else, inside her party or out, who is remotely as plausible as a prime minister as she is.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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