MANCHESTER—Is Prime Minister Theresa May a British Hillary Clinton? Is Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn a sort of left-wing Donald Trump?
Britain votes next week in a general election that was supposed to be effectively a coronation for May, the unlikely prime minister who came to power last summer as a result of Britain’s surprise decision last June to vote to leave the European Union. But instead of “the Brexit Election,” as May called it, strengthening her hand as she heads into tough negotiations with the European Union over the terms of their divorce, May now finds herself in a real contest on June 8 with a Labour leader previously seen as utterly unelectable.
For an American columnist fresh off the 2016 election, there are some striking similarities to ponder. Both leading candidates seem to have taken their cues from the U.S. in ways that could prove risky. Like Clinton when faced with Trump, May has chosen to turn the contest into a referendum on her opponent, the hard-left Corbyn, whose views are far outside the British mainstream and whose party members in parliament voted 80 percent in favor of dumping him as their leader. As a top May adviser put it to me, “Any day we’re talking about May versus Corbyn, we’re winning. Anything else, and we are not.”
But many days lately they have not been talking about Corbyn—or even much about the future of Britain at all.
“It was going to be ‘the Brexit Election’ but it seems that other concerns were dominating,” says Steve Hilton, who served as the Conservatives’ top strategist in the last British general election before falling out with his close friend, May’s predecessor David Cameron, over Brexit. In a new interview for The Global Politico, Hilton says May has not followed through on the “political revolution” that brought Brexit and Trump to the U.S. with a comparable “policy revolution”—nor does she seem likely to after a campaign that at times now seems reminiscent of last year’s American contest.
Indeed, May’s own leadership style and decision-making became the issue in ways she could hardly have anticipated when she called the “snap” election in April. In loud echoes of the rap on Clinton, May has been dinged in recent days on everything from her insular way of running 10 Downing St. and small circle of confidants to talking points-laden speeches and lack of a positive vision for the country.
May promised British voters “strong and stable” leadership—in theory an appealing slogan at a time of massive uncertainty about the country’s post-Europe future—but then was forced to abandon a key plank in her party platform just four days after issuing the campaign manifesto. She proposed and quickly withdrew a so-called “dementia tax” to make Britons pay more out of pocket for long-term care, resulting in days of punishing press coverage; the Tories’ lead in the polls quickly collapsed from some 22 points to as little as 5 points. Headlines, like this one in the left-leaning Independent, started warning: “Theresa May will meet the same fate as Hillary Clinton.”
And meantime, the much-maligned Corbyn has been running what many British pols this week told me they consider a near-flawless campaign. His advisers speak openly of how they Trumpified their leftist boss, courting controversy rather than avoiding it, doubling down on the party’s left wing rather than worrying about pivoting to the center, rallying the public with populist pledges to skip the messy foreign entanglements in favor of investing more back home.
Then came Manchester.
Massacre of the Innocents. Fortress Britain. Pure Evil.
All week long the tabloids screamed out the horror of the terrorist attack in this football-obsessed, proudly working-class hub of the industrial revolution turned booming center of the new economy, with 22 dead in the Monday night bombing of an Ariana Grande concert full of young girls and their mothers. By the time I arrived Tuesday afternoon, all national campaigning had been suspended as Britain stopped to mourn the dead. At the vigil that night in Manchester’s Albert Square, I stood amid a silent, tearful crowd of thousands. There was shock but not necessarily surprise that Manchester had been added to the long list of European cities like Paris, Brussels and Berlin that have been hit by such attacks in the last few years.
On his first international trip as president, Trump took time out to condemn the Manchester attack, calling the bomber who did it an “evil loser.” Even many Brits who said they didn’t like Trump thought that was just about the right tone to strike.
By Wednesday, May had ordered armed police to the streets and the British military to take up positions at key posts and raised the nation’s threat level to the highest in a decade, assessing the chances of another attack as “imminent.” The papers were no longer talking about her “U-turn” on the “dementia tax” but about whether the national police budget had been cut too much in recent years and how security should play in May’s favor over Corbyn, nobody’s idea of a get-tough-on-terrorists hawk.
By Friday, campaigning was back on, and the subject was most decidedly not May’s social program. As Corbyn complained that British foreign policy was partly to blame for the terrorist attack, May went on the offensive.
Mixing partisan politics with a G-7 summit in Sicily, she said Corbyn’s statement amounted to an “excuse for terrorism,” adding: “The choice that people face at the general election has just become starker. It’s a choice between me, working constantly to protect the national interest and to protect our security—and Jeremy Corbyn, who frankly isn’t up to the job.”
After a painful detour of more than a week, May was back doing what her campaign believed she had to do to win: Make it a him-or-me kind of a race.
But those nagging, haven’t-we-seen-this-play-before doubts continue to follow May, and how could they not, with memories so fresh of Clinton’s decision to make the election a referendum on Trump? May is very much a creature of the British Tory establishment whose careful political persona would seem to be not only Clintonian, but out of step with the to-hell-with-that ethos that led to the Brexit vote less than a year ago.
Then again, her advisers reckon that might not matter so much, and there are several broad developments that might help May even if her own political skills undercut her. Most important: she’s pulled perhaps the most important flip-flop possible in going from Brexit opponent before last year’s referendum to portraying herself as the strong-willed negotiator who can deliver on Brexit in this year’s race, pitching even more explicitly to the white working-class voters who fueled the referendum win at just the moment when the insurgent party that helped fuel the referendum, the UK Independence Party and its immigrant-bashing leader Nigel Farage, has seemingly imploded.
And besides, it’s still hard to see a realistic scenario for a Prime Minister Corbyn.
Can a Labour leader who repeatedly voted against counterterrorism funding, who has been attacked for calling the killing of Osama bin Laden a “tragedy,” and whose party manifesto is the most left-wing document the party has produced since 1983, really have a chance? What are the odds?
“Zero percent,” a veteran BBC producer told me me—except, he quickly added that, in this age of Brexit and Trump, he no longer trusts the polls, or his own political instincts honed over three decades of covering British elections, or anything really.