How about a different sort of explanation?
Why did it all go wrong?
As you all probably know by now, the election that was meant to give a landslide for the Conservative Party instead lost them their majority and resulted in chaos.
Well, nobody really knows, of course. But here are a few reasons...
Jeremy Corbyn grew in stature through the campaign. Accused of being largely absent in the Brexit campaign, he was everywhere here, his profile only expanded by the hysterical press coverage (the papers accused him of being a 'marxist extremist' and a 'terrorist sympathiser'). If he wasn't on TV speaking to a huge, adoring rally of supporters, he was on TV being an ordinary bloke chatting with other ordinary people. He made hardly any mistakes throughout, and largely managed to shield his weak front bench.
Theresa May attempted to do the same. Her advisors, particularly the Australian merchant-of-global-hatred Lynton Crosby, pushed her toward an extremely presidential campaign style, with 100% of the focus on her, to an unprecedented extent. Prominent cabinet ministers were essentially invisible throughout the campaign, banned from public appearances and in some cases forced to hide from the press. Their 'battle bus' did not say "Conservatives" on the side, but just "Theresa May". My local Tory candidate's advertising promoted them not as "The Conservatives - vote for so-and-so", nor "So-and-so, standing for the conservative party", but as "so-and-so, standing with Theresa May", and the name of their party only in small print at the bottom.
The thing is, that probably works if you're campaigning for Bill Clinton, or Tony Blair... or even maybe for David Cameron. Theresa May, however, is not Bill Clinton. Her demeanour is cold, dull, mechanical, and somewhat harsh. That too is not inherently a problem. In fact, like several other prominent female leaders, she leant into her persona, having friends leak that she was a "bloody difficult woman", drawing sharp contrasts between her substantive boringness and the shallow slipperiness of past politicians. But that sort of personal style does make it difficult to sustain a campaign based solely on her personal charisma. When you see Theresa May on the TV, you're not gripped by a desire to listen to her, and that made the decision not to allow more charismatic politicians on TV, or even just a greater variety of boring ones (the Tories at the moment not having a deep bench of charisma to draw on), rather odd.
Perhaps that wouldn't have mattered if May had had something genuinely interesting to say. Instead, Crosby's campaign focused on soundbites, rather than specifics. Particularly at the beginning of the campaign, pretty much everything she said involved the phrase - and indeed was largely limited to the phrase - "strong and stable". This was said so many times that it quickly became the subject of widespread mockery, and made it hard for her to have people pay any attention to her.
Again, repeating the same soundbites isn't new. Lots of politicians do it. But Theresa May does not do it well. She doesn't have the wit to vary the content of her words, nor the suavity to make old words seem new. As a result, she became known as the "Maybot", a mechanical AI experiment that spat out variations on the same stock phrases with no attention whatsoever paid to the context. If it wasn't strong and stable, it was being very clear, or it was Brexit. Or it was being very clear that only strong and stable leadership could deliver a strong and stable Brexit. An interview with a local journalist became famous as "the dullest political interview in history", and "three minutes of saying absolutely nothing". [and of four questions, she began three of her answers with "I'm very clear that..."]
May seemed to be aware of this weakness, but magnified it through her cowardice. She hardly ever met any members of the public, and when she did it was one or two people at a time, with little warning and little press coverage, in case anything went wrong. She didn't have rallies like Corbyn, not just because she couldn't find enough people who liked her, but also because ordinary people seem to have ruled out as too unpredictable and irregular. Perhaps that was a good idea, except that the presidential campaigning style required constant coverage of her. The result was constant coverage of her, giving snippets of speeches, to tiny crowds of handpicked supporters and her own advisors, in front of artificial backdrops, usually in aircraft hangers or other large empty spaces. Politicians always do that - it's an easy way to generate a five-second TV clip without worrying too much about security or logistics - but having a campaign consisting of nothing but these artificial soundstages made it look like the PM was a robot who couldn't be trusted with, or worse perhaps disdained, any actual human contact. Rather than minimising her robotic image, it magnified it.
Worst of all, she didn't dare debate her rivals. TV debates are a new thing in the UK, but they've quickly become popular and expected. May flat-out refused to debate Corbyn. She did give in and allow a weird sort of time-lag debate, in which Corbyn and May each answered a series of questions from an interviewer, with the two interviews shown back-to-back... but that just highlighted the fact that she didn't dare be in the same room as him! That in turn was amplified when Corbyn made a surprise appearance in a debate with the leaders of the minor parties, and May again declined to show up. Tip for any politicians reading: boycotting the "minor party" junior debate session can look good, if your serious rival does so too (so that it looks unimportant, not in the same league), but when he turns up and you don't, you're left with a stage holding every candidate to lead the country except you, and that's not a good image.
It's wrong to say there was nothing to the campaign beyond "strong and stable". There was some content: in the Tory manifesto. Not a lot of content, because they refused to give any actual figures for anything ("the only numbers in the Tory manifesto are the page numbers", as a rival quipped). But there was content. And that may be where they went wrong.
In essence, the manifesto attempted to persuade voters that if they voted Tory, they'd be miserable. It was an odd strategy. Highlights included:
- ending a promise on pensions, effectively implying that pensions would be cut, at least relative to existing promises
- taking away winter fuel allowance from some pensioners
- stop giving free food to poor children
- cut taxes for big corporations
- reintroduce grammar schools
- build more schools for Catholics
- legalise fox-hunting
Much of this could be conceptually defended. Some pensioners are rich enough not to need subsidies to pay for fuel, for instance. But taken as a package, it came across as miserable, cruel and unfair, and at the same time as returning to the old Tory 'nasty party' of out-of-touch aristocrats, scaring potential new working-class Tories back to safety with Labour. It was also completely disconnected from the rest of the campaign. While Crosby was having May focus everything on Brexit and stability, her chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, took the opportunity to write a manifesto that focused on their personal dream social policies. Because Crosby's May was focused on Brexit and stability, and no-one else was allowed on camera, there was no-one to actually defend the manifesto, and because the manifesto said very little about Brexit and stability, it wasn't able to flesh out the missing detail in May's vague on-screen reassurances.
Worst of all, however, was the so-called "dementia tax", in which old people with dementia would be punished by taking their homes away from their families after their death and selling them. Again, her advisors seem not to have realised how things might look to anyone who wasn't a policy wonk. They thought that what they were doing was raising the threshold of wealth at which people started having to pay for their own care, but including houses in that wealth calculation, and allowing payment post mortum. But what that would mean in practice, and how people saw it, was that old people who happened to need care would have their houses stolen by the government the moment they died. This appeared heartless and unjust.
May then attempted to assuage fears, and made it even worse. Early suggestions along these lines had included a proposed upper cap on how much would have to be potentially paid by the estates of the deceased, but the manifesto version pointedly removed that cap, making it potentially limitless. Within a day, May reversed this policy change, and reintroduced the proposed cap. Accused of a U-turn, she then made it even worse again, by insisting that nothing had ever changed and there had been no u-turn. This made it look as though she were either lying to people or didn't understand her own manifesto...
Labour's manifesto, meanwhile, was launched to a chorus of jeers, as it was filled with promises that amounted to political suicide, with ridiculous ideas like renationalising the railways. Unfortunately for the Tories and the press, it turned out that Labour's policies were really, really popular. Which we all knew, because they'd always polled well. But it was assumed that because they were left-wing, they'd be political suicide. Perhaps in other times they would have been. But in the depths of austerity, and opposite a Tory manifesto that stopped one step short of reintroducing workhouses and compulsory gruel, Labour's message of life not being shit if you voted for them resonated. And Tory attempts to deride Labour's "magic money tree" to pay for all this stuff were deeply undermined by the fact that Labour had produced detailed and specific (if predictably optimistic) costings for all their proposals, whereas the Tories hadn't explained how they would pay for anything at all.
The minor parties and reconfiguration
The minor parties all saw declines in support, pushing both main parties to historic highs (Labour had their best election for 16 years, while the Tories had their best election, in raw vote terms, for three and a half decades). The Tories knew they were doing well, but didn't realise Labour would do even better. Expecting to take seats directly from Labour, the Tories focused too many resources on safe Labour seats, and failed to realise how much of UKIP's collapsing vote would flow back to Labour.
Part of the problem here, and part of the reason the results feel more epic than the numbers say they should be, is the role of Brexit. Faced with an orthogonal issue, the party system a year ago looked on the verge of collapse; instead, the parties are striking back and their vote is reconfiguring along Brexit lines. The Tories did much better than before in many Labour areas, particularly in the northwest, and also of course in Scotland, and saw particular gains in strongly Leave constituencies. Labour, however, ate into Tory leads in Remain seats across the south. In particularly, not only have Labour picked up a few completely unexpected gains in London (including Kensington and Chelsea, one of the richest seats in the country), but the Tories have been left with dramatically reduced majorities across the capital, to the extent that outside of a few outer suburbs there's basically nowhere in London where they are more than a few thousand votes ahead.
But the river tripped on her by and by, lapping
as though her heart was brook: Why, why, why! Weh, O weh
I'se so silly to be flowing but I no canna stay!