When Prime Minister Theresa May unexpectedly called a general election she was sitting pretty with the opinion polls heavily weighted in her favour. With the election due on Thursday, the stakes could not be higher with the narrowing of the gap between the seeming runaway candidate May and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn earlier relegated to the [...]


British elections: Shake, rattle and roll


When Prime Minister Theresa May unexpectedly called a general election she was sitting pretty with the opinion polls heavily weighted in her favour.
With the election due on Thursday, the stakes could not be higher with the narrowing of the gap between the seeming runaway candidate May and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn earlier relegated to the backburner as lacking leadership qualities.

It seems that politicians never learn. In recent years opinion polls have proved woefully wrong. If our Sri Lankan politicians rely on the positioning of the stars and those who interpret their movements, politicians here appear to place their faith on the pollsters. But Theresa May should have learnt from the past that opinion polls could be as unreliable as voters are fickle. Political fortunes change very much like the British weather.

Probably influenced by her rising fortunes as predicted by the polls some of which showed she had almost a 25 points head start on Labour’s Left oriented-Jeremy Corbyn who was not only fighting the government but enemies within, she thought the time was ripe to strengthen her position in her own Conservative Party. With talks on Brexit – the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union – due to start two weeks or so from now, May was counting on projecting herself as a tough negotiator who would be best able to secure the most favourable exit terms for the country.

With only a small Conservative majority in parliament and some hardline party members calling for Britain to stand firm against the EU, Theresa May was hoping an election would provide her with a bigger mandate. That would give her more room and flexibility to handle her own backbenchers and deal with the EU.

Moreover, she was taking on Corbyn who even some in his own party considered lacklustre and too left-leaning to be able to keep the Labour middle-ground safe for the party.
That was the position when a general election was suddenly foisted on the public by a prime minister who had vowed several times earlier to complete the full parliamentary term and not call for a snap election.
There were several things wrong with the Theresa May campaign which at the time of writing has shaken her close-knit campaign team and rattled May. To begin with they tried to turn this into a presidential-style campaign with May projected as a kind of English Joan of Arc who is the only one capable of taking on the continental European Union and winning the best for Britain.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May reacts as she speaks at an election campaign event at Pride Park Stadium in Derby, Britian. Election are due on Thursday. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

But if one is to believe some of what is written and said today in the media and elsewhere the British are preparing to burn her at the stake – metaphorically speaking – as the English did to the real Joan of Arc in historical times. The truth is that the presidential-style campaign does not suit Theresa May. She does not have an impressive and charismatic public presence. She has always been known to work in small, close-knit circles in which she is more comfortable.

But when the entire campaign was focused on Theresa May the individual rather than on the Conservative Party, its strengths and its prominent personalities, it became a May event that now may not happen as the campaign team had planned. Their campaign slogan was strong and stable leadership. But those personal characteristics as a tough woman blown out of proportion began to fall apart when the Conservative Party manifesto was released just recently.

Moreover Theresa May ducked a TV debate of party leaders raising questions about her ability to respond to questioning and scrutiny and defend her policies in a live performance before a live audience.
She also turned down an invitation for a debate with Corbyn saying that she had faced him each Wednesday in parliament across the despatch box during prime minister’s question time.
But that was hardly a defensible position for right now the debate is centered round her manifesto rather than what should have been a broadly agreed party manifesto which could then be more faithfully and strongly defended by the party as a whole.

The greatest blow to her campaign has been May’s attempt to go back on a manifesto proposal on social care where elderly people would have to pay a share for social care. It has come to be castigated as the “dementia tax” and would affect the 65-years and over who are basically Conservative Party supporters.

May has had to try and wriggle out of it saying that her government would have a cap on the upper limit after consultations with relevant bodies and the public. So going back in a way on a key manifesto proposal so shortly before the polling has shown that May is rattled and shaken by the public reaction and that she is not the strong and stable leader she was portrayed to be.

The Labour Party on the other hand as come up with a populist manifesto promising to nationalise rail and mail, to remove tuition fees for students, put more police on the streets and allocate more funds for the National Health Service which many say is slowly crumbling, and to build more housing.

Immigration remains a key issue with May accused of not being able to reduce migration as promised during her years as Home Secretary and even now unable to put a figure on how many migrants would be permitted to come here. With just a few days to go the “Team May” campaign is trying to veer the whole campaign back to Brexit and who would be able to negotiate more successfully with the European Union which generally appears cheesed off with May’s aggressive approach.

The Conservative team has learnt that pitching May as the great leader and denigrating Corbyn as an outdated politician, has backfired somewhat with voter sympathy turning in favour of the person they see as beleaguered with even party faithfuls sniping at him. The problem for Labour however is that though it has presented a populist program it seems that the costs of these policies do not seem to add up and Labour would be hard put to find the funds required to sustain such policies.

One of course is reminded of Sri Lanka’s own political leaders who not so long ago promised the sun and moon but have quietly slipped out from implementing them for lack of finances though they apparently have enough to provide increased perks and privileges for parliamentarians.

With four days to go for the election the money seems to be on May winning but not with the increased majority she hoped to get. But some predict that the result could even be a ‘hung’ parliament. If there is such a close call the horse trading to put together a coalition government will begin.

Labour has said it will not enter into any coalition. But politicians are, after all, politicians not for nothing. Politicians over here may be more principled than many in Sri Lanka who would cross, double cross and even treble cross if the terms for their support are right. In the event the election results in a defeat for the Conservatives and a Labour-led coalition comes to power then Sri Lanka will have to recalibrate its bilateral relations with the UK. A Labour-led coalition would not be the most favourable to Sri Lanka, especially when one looks at Corbyn’s past record vis a vis Sri Lanka’s human rights and the Tamil issue and his participation at anti-Sri Lanka and pro-LTTE rallies.

Moreover the Labour Party and the Lib-Dems have in the last decade or more been critical of the Sri Lanka Government and would want to take a tough stand at the UNHRC especially on the full implementation of the UK-supported resolution calling for accountability trials on allegations of war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law.

From Colombo’s standpoint a return of a Conservative Government would be best. But would Theresa May be able to obtain the necessary majority for her to have a firm hand on the tiller.
If a clear outcome emerges then we should know by early Friday. Otherwise we would have to wait till the horse traders begin dealing.

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