by W Stephen Gilbert
Now we dare to hope. If the rain isn’t too relentless on Thursday…If the Momentum activists do their stuff and all those who’ve volunteered to phone voters with the free-to-use app do so…If whatever low stunts have been pulled by The Sun, the Daily Mail, The Times and The Daily Telegraph on Thursday morning can be laughed off…If nobody has a seriously damaging last-minute gaffe…And if the ever-unreliable opinion polls are a day or two behind the trend…
Who imagined that this was possible seven weeks ago? Well, I did. Jeremy Corbyn’s galvanising candour and cool have worked miracles before. We saw it last year and the year before. Alone among Tories, Ken Clarke warned of its power two years ago. But a sense of righteous entitlement has misled smarter people than Theresa May. She never credited the possibility of failure.
If he becomes Prime Minister on Friday or after a week or two of haggling or after a second election in the autumn, it will be Corbyn’s triumph way beyond anyone else’s. He would never claim it like that but we may do so on his behalf. He has shown that speaking truth to power and sticking to your principles – and, in some cases, making a shrewd choice between conflicting principles (say, backing Trident for now because Labour’s policies are decided democratically) – resonates with voters, especially those too young to acquire thick layers of cynicism.
It’s hard to see that May can survive. Even if she manages to push up the Tory majority by a few seats, it’s not what she called the election for. Her credibility has fallen substantially and those with whom she would be negotiating in Brussels have seen how unsteady under fire she is. The Conservative Party is too ruthless and professional an outfit to neglect clearing up the mess that the campaign has made and the sacrifice of May would be the very least gesture towards a beginning.
In the Labour Party, there will be calls for Corbyn’s head in any circumstance short of a decisive victory. Even with a hung parliament, the nay-sayers will grumble that the party would have done better with another leader. This is idle, of course. The argument that another leader would have been more popular means that the massive opinion poll lead that May enjoyed when she called the election would not have obtained. In that case, she would not have risked the election and she would still be in power. Corbyn has – uniquely in political history – parlayed a huge media-created under-estimation into a potentially winning hand. He’s done it by sheer force of personality. If there were another fortnight to go, we might well be confidently anticipating a Labour landslide.
Think how extraordinary this turn-around has been. Changes of government almost always come about because the governing party is widely seen to be exhausted, corrupt, bereft of ideas or a combination thereof. Think of 1951, 1964, 1979, 1997, 2010. It’s rare for opposition parties to scale the ramparts and displace a settled administration; 1945 may be the only precedent in living memory. The curious passage of the 1970s is sui generis. Wilson unexpectedly lost the 1970 election. Heath was doomed from the start and called the 1974 election on an issue he was never going to win. Wilson sought an improved majority in the October but he and then Jim Callaghan were kept on a very tight leash (a majority of three, then the Lib-Lab pact) for the remainder of the term. Otherwise, oppositions that seem vaguely competent are only preferred over governments that have lost the plot. It would be too partisan to suggest that the Tories’ time was undeniably up, despite the sorry record of May’s tenure. But the negotiations with the EU might well have damaged May rather more than anything hitherto. Her hubris in contemplating her supposedly unique ability to emerge triumphant from those negotiations has certainly tempted the electorate to view her with scorn and doubt.
But Corbyn was battling an extraordinary wall of contempt and suspicion. The Tory press is remorseless in its unscrupulous blackguarding of Labour leaders – it’s hard to imagine that Owen Smith would now be leading his troops up the hill to a potential victory if he had prevailed in the leadership contest only last September; he would have been destroyed by the press. Tony Blair is unique in the friendly coverage he received and that was because he was imagined (wrongly as it turned out) to be less EU-enthusiastic than John Major and because he constantly assured the press barons that his government would do nothing to lessen their favourable tax positions. Don’t imagine that Rupert Murdoch invites a Labour man to be his child’s godfather if he suspects that man may not be in his pocket.
Besides the press, the BBC has had to be shamed into covering all parties with more objectivity. Fortunately, as the ‘story’ that the BBC reporters perceived has shifted from a coronation to a comedy of errors, so May’s vulnerability has been not only impossible to disguise but a self-selecting series of headlines. When the BBC’s completed coverage comes to be studied, though, there will surely be questions about the amount of time given to UKIP and its noisy leader, compared to that afforded to the Greens (who after all have a re-contesting MP) or indeed the Liberal Democrats.
And then there was the nature of the support given to Corbyn by his party. No democratically elected party leader has ever been so systematically undermined by his own parliamentarians, let alone one whose (reiterated) mandate was the most emphatic any party leader has ever enjoyed. All those Labour members elected on Thursday should get down on their knees and thank Corbyn for saving their jobs. It would be reassuring to feel able to expect that what may be the government backbenches will both begin and remain supportive and generous. I shan’t hold my breath, though. As is always observed about changes of government, the real hard battles start now.