UK results reject myth of “strong” leader, have lessons for India 

Underestimating the rival, politicising terror, arrogance and over confidence led to Theresa May losing the plot and virtually the election. There could be lessons for India as well

Photo courtesy: Screenshot
Photo courtesy: Screenshot

Hasan Suroor

The surprise outcome of the British general election is a grim warning for all self-proclaimed “strong” leaders, not least in India where a cult has grown up around the myth of a muscular and invincible messiah. Theresa May’s entire campaign was built around the claim that she alone could provide a “strong and stable leadership” in these difficult times, deriding her Labour opponent Jeremy Corbyn as “weak” and incapable of leading the country.

May ran a highly personalised, almost presidential, campaign with barely a mention of her party, either in her speeches or publicity material. She became the party. To Indian observers here, it seemed like a replay of campaigns the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ran in the 2014 general election—and more recently, in Uttar Pradesh.

Broadly, the British electorate has sent two important messages that would resonate beyond Britain: one, arrogance doesn't pay; and two, don't ever underestimate the underdog. On a good day, even the seemingly most hopeless and down-in-the-dump underdog can throw up a surprise, as Corbyn and his party have shown in the face of dire predictions. Voters don't like to be taken for granted, and any hint of arrogance by a political party or leader can invite punishment. May was guilty of both: taking voters for granted and severely underestimating Corbyn.

Her decision to call a snap election itself was borne out of arrogance—on the smug assumption that the Opposition was so weak and voters so gullible that they would automatically wave her in simply on the back of her claim of “strong leadership”. There was talk of a Tory “landslide”, and of “crushing” the Labour Party, and “decimating” the Liberal Democrats.

It was a wholly unnecessary election: she had a working majority, faced no internal dissent, her personal ratings were sky-high (comparable to Margaret Thatcher at the height of her popularity), and the Tory party had an up to 25-point lead over Labour. And with the crucial Brexit negotiations looming, the last thing the country needed was an election considering that she still had three more years to go.

May’s decision took the country by surprise, especially as she had repeatedly ruled out an early election. She sought to justify the move, arguing that a fresh and a bigger public mandate would strengthen her hands in Brexit negotiations. The real reason, of course, was wholly opportunistic: she wanted to take advantage of the disarray in Opposition ranks to increase her majority in Parliament and strengthen her hold over the party. In the event, her gamble has badly backfired.

It all started swimmingly well as the party continued to lead in the polls but as her campaign became increasingly more presidential, voters were put off. The more they saw of her—stiff, non-communicative, reluctant to meet ordinary people—the less they liked her and gradually the aura of strength and invincibility began to fade. And then came the botched manifesto launch. Thin on policy, it basically asked people to sign her a blank cheque. The only big policy she offered—a scheme for social care of the elderly—provoked such outrage that she was forced into a U-turn, marking the start of a rapid decline in her ratings. On the day of the poll, Tories had been reduced to barely five or six points.

While the wheels were coming off May’s campaign, Labour was gaining momentum. The more people saw of Corbyn, the more they warmed to him; and the Labour manifesto with its eye-watering promise of abolishing university tuition fee and increasing expenditure on public services was a huge hit, especially with young people.

Rattled by falling poll ratings, May scrambled to repackage her campaign around national security, portraying Corbyn as a friend of “terrorists” (IRA, Hezbollah, Hamas) and a “risk” to security. But it failed to make an impact, and on the contrary, drew accusations of politicising the Manchester and London terror attacks.

If May had cared to look back at recent history, she would have noticed that being tough on terror is not necessarily an insurance against an electoral upset. In 2007, Gordon Brown was widely praised for his firm handling of the terror attack at Glasgow airport which happened within days of his becoming PM. Yet, in the ensuing elections, Labour was routed. Similarly, in France, Francois Hollande was commended for his robust response to the Paris attacks but that didn't save his presidency. In Spain, in 2004, the then Spanish ruling Popular Party suffered an unexpected defeat in the election held after the Madrid train bombings.

Ironically, although she called the election over Brexit, she barely mentioned the issue during the campaign. And ultimately it became a contest between her vague promises and a solid social vision offered by Labour Party. She lost. The Tories also got a hammering from Indian-origin voters who felt that they had been duped into voting for Brexit with false promises, particularly over immigration. Indian-origin candidates won more seats than their Tory counterparts.

May has ended up as greatly diminished figure dependant on outside support to form a government. The big immediate challenge facing her is the Brexit negotiations set to start in a few days. She has got herself and Britain in a big hole. Will she be able to dig her way out of it?

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