Theresa May must sell the General Election to an electorate hit by voter-fatigue

Prime Minister Theresa May had been ruling out an early General Election right up to the point at which she called one.

Theresa May has called a general election, but can she get voters to turn out? (┬ęPhilip Toscano/PA Wire/PA Images)
Theresa May has called a general election, but can she get voters to turn out? (┬ęPhilip Toscano/PA Wire/PA Images)

On her accession to the Prime Ministership last June, she said she wouldn't be having an election.

She told Andrew Marr the same last September. And again in her Christmas message. And Downing Street ruled it out last month.

And then yesterday, she called one.

It’s a gamble to do so. The last one was only two years ago, the EU referendum feels like yesterday. We’ve got local elections next month, while the SNP are campaigning for IndyRef2.

We’re a little fatigued by the ballot box, and few can imagine the electorate gleefully waiting for yet more politics.

The motivation is obvious.

The relative slenderness of her current majority acts like the slave at the shoulder of Roman emperors, whose job was to remind them that they were mortal.


We’ve got local elections next month, the SNP campaigning for IndyRef2. We’re a little fatigued by the ballot box, and few can imagine the electorate gleefully waiting for yet more politics.

Jimmy Leach, former head of digital comms in Downing Street


This is May’s chance to remove that threat of mortality - but the possibility of a low turnout may make her presumed triumph less clear-cut than might be imagined, even in the face of Jeremy Corbyn’s version of opposition.

Low turnouts can often affect the presumed winners disproportionately.

That might especially be the case when she had so repeatedly ruled it out. We had expected consistency from her, and we did so because we mistake her seriousness for deep thinking.

Look a bit miserable and, it seems, you can get away with the most blatant of opportunism.

What we have is an approach where the tone of communications is high and the tactics Machiavellian.

Because while portraying this as an election with which to unite the country ahead of the Brexit negotiations, May is, in reality, cementing in her government by asking us to vote, again, on Brexit while not knowing, again, what it looks like.

By the time we get to vote on the actual outcome of the hard version that May intends, it’ll all be over.

Domestically, meanwhile, the election offers a chance to formally abandon a manifesto which has been ignored with increasing speed and settle on a new message that distances the government from the Cameron/Osborne years.

The jettisoning of Cameron-era policies were the clues to yesterday’s announcement: the Budget attempts to change national insurance contributions, the dropping of commitments to not build on green belt land, abandoning the idea of running a budget surplus and the likely end on long-held spending levels on international aid.

Ordinarily, such a sudden and unannounced set of switches would be a problem, but the failure of Corbyn’s Labour machinery to show they could run a bath, never mind a country, gives May all the freedom she wants.

Corbyn’s failure to find his message and an audience that will physically vote for him, rather than like the occasional Facebook post, reached its nadir with Labour’s failure to win in local elections in Middlesbrough (Middlesbrough!), which showed May that she can start ordering the new kitchen for Number 10.

There’s little evidence that May’s approach wins friends or admirers and she’ll never quite make us understand what she stands ‘for’, but Corbyn’s credibility gap leaves the road clear for her to drive on it in any way she wishes.

And for as long as she wants.

Jimmy Leach is a former head of digital comms in Downing Street and was also head of digital diplomacy in the Foreign Office


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