Tom Richmond: Theresa May’s misjudgement of country’s mood

theresa May at the press conference in Guisborough where her evasiveness became self-evident.
theresa May at the press conference in Guisborough where her evasiveness became self-evident.
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THERESA MAY’S campaign visit to a family-run business on the edge of the North York Moors in a Brexit-supporting area came to epitomise a catastrophic campaign – and effectively sealed the fate of a Prime Minister whose reputation is in ruins as Britain faces political paralysis.

After repeating her sideswipes at Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, and foreboding warnings – now rather ironic – about a ‘coalition of chaos’ as Conservatives find themselves propped up by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, the Tory leader took questions from the travelling media.

What could possibly go wrong?

However this was the morning after the seven-way leaders’ debate which the Prime Minister had sidestepped – and journalists wanted, quite reasonably, to know whether Mrs May had watched the exchanges in which Home Secretary Amber Rudd was left carrying the can for the Tories 48 hours after the death of her father.

She did not answer the question. “I think Amber Rudd did an excellent job,” said the Prime Minister lamely and evasively after being wrong-footed by Mr Corbyn’s last minute decision to join the debate. Now it was Mrs May running scared from her rivals in an election that she called.

She was then asked the same question for a second time – and then gave the same awkward answer. This was a PM unable to think on her feet and say, simply, that the TV was on in the background while she worked on her Government papers while noting the discord in the debate. I hate to say it, but she looked shifty.

And then she was asked whether Mrs Rudd, only re-elected at 5am yesterday after umpteen recounts in Hastings, would make a good Chancellor? Again the Prime Minister prevaricated, her obfuscation making a mockery of the decision to sideline Chancellor Philip Hammond when the economy was supposed to be the Tory’s trump card.

Far from bearing the hallmarks of a ‘strong and stable’ leader, Theresa May looked weak and wobbly. The leader given the benefit of the doubt after she succeeded David Cameron when he lost the EU referendum a year ago had left voters full of doubts about a leader whose increasingly hopeless campaign was bereft of hope.

Insincere, and lacking empathy when a nurse challenged her about the public sector wage freeze in the following day’s Question Time hustings in York, her demeanour was in marked contrast to the politics of care and compassion espoused by Mr Corbyn and his anti-austerity crusade.

As the BBC’s veteran political presenter David Dimbleby observed when he revealed the unerringly accurate exit poll: “If this is right, Theresa May has not got the massive support from the country she was hoping to get to allow her to do whatever it is she wanted to do which she never told us.” It said it all.

And when last Saturday’s terrorist outrage unfolded in London, the second atrocity of the campaign, Mrs May’s decision to cut police numbers, when Home Secretary, returned to haunt her.

Here I do have some sympathy with the embattled PM. She had to balance her campaign duties with leading the nation’s response to the Manchester Arena suicide bombing, and then the tragic events in London, while coming to terms with the security considerations. This was unenviable.

It should also be noted that the Tories polled 42 per cent of the vote – a level of support last enjoyed as
long ago as 1987 when Margaret Thatcher won a third election. Yet, while the strength of the Ukip vote benefited the Tories in 2015, its collapse on Thursday boosted Labour and Mrs May was only able to cling onto power because of her party’s revival in Scotland.

And, frankly, it only has itself to blame. Mrs May, or her spokesman, ruled out an early election seven times before this volte-face while her close clique of advisors could not have been more inept – heaven help us if the control-freaks behind this disastrous miscalculation remain in place.

They misjudged the mood of the country. They produced a manifesto that lacked detail while offending and alienating the elderly, the party’s core supporters. They opened up an unnecessary debate on fox hunting. And, just like last year’s Remain campaign, all they could offer was more fear of the unknown and more austerity – a message that was never going to resonate with all those whose living standards have been squeezed for a decade or those students aware that their vote could make a difference as Mr Corbyn, by way of contrast, followed the noise on the campaign trail as support grew.

What next? Mrs May – effectively in office but not in power – is left without any mandate whatsoever. Having warned of a Corbyn-led ‘coalition of chaos’ if she lost as few as six seats, she’s trying this weekend to form a government after sacrificing 12

And while it is her constitutional prerogative to do so as the leader of the largest party, Britain has never been more politically divided. North-South, remain-leave, rich-poor, young-old and urban-rural, the splits are stark. And, because Mrs May did not even acknowledge them when she returned to 10 Downing Street after being given permission to form a government by the Queen, they will intensify as she attempts to form a Brexit strategy prior to negotiations with the EU beginning in 10 days’ time. And then there’s the small matter of trying to form a Queen’s Speech of sorts for Monday week.

Theresa May speaks of providing “certainty”. She’s kidding herself – she did not even say that she’s leading a minority government. All that lies ahead is even more uncertainty before she has to call CJ Leonard and Sons, the Guisborough firm she visited a week before the election, to hire one of their removal vans following one of the biggest electoral misjudgments in post-war history.