May Ignores Heath Folly and Pays the Ultimate Price

A couple of months ago, I mused in these pages whether Theresa May’s decision to call a snap general election would backfire, as it did when her predecessor Edward Heath took a similar decision back in February 1974.

As it transpires, May’s gamble has not paid off. Although her Conservative Party garnered the most votes in the 8th June election and remains the largest within the House of Commons, a surge by Labour has resulted in a hung parliament and the end of the Tory majority.

Theresa May’s tenure at 10 Downing Street looks increasingly untenable

The prelude, campaign and results of the 2017 general election mirror those of 1974. Tory overconfidence against a seemingly disunited opposition, a lacklustre campaign compounded by policy errors and weak manifestos, and ultimately a hung parliament (although it is worth noting that Heath’s Conservatives were not even the largest party, losing by 4 seats to Harold Wilson’s Labour).

As in 1974, also, the immediate future is unclear. May has vowed to soldier on as Prime Minister, even though her minority government is now reliant on an unlikely kingmaker to pass its desired legislation: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP sits even further to the right than the Tories on the political spectrum, its Eurosceptic, socially conservative views at odds with those of much of the British populace.

For years the DUP was led by the formidable Ian Paisley as a staunch opposition to Republicanism in Ireland

Even were May to win a loose alignment with the DUP – necessarily giving the Northern Irish party influence way beyond its 10 seats – she would still need to maintain the loyalty of Tory backbenchers, certainly not guaranteed.

The alternatives, however, are hardly appealing. May’s resignation would trigger a Tory leadership contest and probably another general election, something the British electorate is unlikely to have energy for.

Alternatively, there is the prospect of a minority Labour government under the stewardship of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has proved himself a competent campaigner, his skills honed by years of futile protesting against almost every policy any government has ever advocated. The chances of him being an effective PM, however, are slim, with Labour’s wild campaign promises surely not capable of being fulfilled in government.

Corbyn has hailed Labour’s election defeat as a victory, yet it is unlikely that he would be able to live up to his campaign promises were he to become Prime Minister

Mrs May will know that Heath’s attempts to form a coalition government in 1974 failed, prompting his resignation. Wilson’s minority Labour government hung on until a second election of the year (held in October) delivered him a narrow majority.

With Brexit negotiations yet to begin in earnest, threats to Britain’s security seemingly increasing by the day, and economic recovery still ponderous, all we know for certain is that the country is in for an uncertain few months.

How Mrs May must regret not taking heed of history and allowing her majority, albeit narrow, to steer Britain ahead through the choppiest of waters.

Edward Heath heads to the polling station in 1974. He would be out of office within days

Cameron Shows Foresight in Election Debate Saga: sets his party up for victory

David Cameron’s proposal to hold only one seven-party TV debate prior to the May General Election has been met with derision by his political opponents. This is not surprising given that the other parties’ best hopes of covering their own policy flaws is through carefully-orchestrated attacks on Cameron during a live debate. Cameron, meanwhile, has made and reasoned and sensible decision.

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Source: BBC

 

TV debates are rarely easy for the incumbent. As the focal point for all criticism, a leader will often look as if he is floundering simply because the majority of attacks are aimed at him. Challengers, meanwhile, have the benefit of hindsight to dismiss every policy move made by the present government, creating an impression of strength and foresight.

Quite simply, TV debates often hinge on such unimportant factors as appearance, charisma and luck. A skilled politician may have all these things but they are not essential to ensuring good governance. In a few minutes, a political campaign can be broken by an off-the-cuff remark, an untimely bead of sweat or an unfortunate grimace. Cameron knows this and he is wise to try and stay clear of something that – for no political reason – can only hurt him.

The USA popularised the televised political debate and it was during its first incarnation during the Presidential Election of 1960 that its pitfalls immediately became apparent. Incumbent Vice-President Richard Nixon took a hammering against the up-and-coming Democratic nominee, John F Kennedy. What turned the public against Nixon during the debate was not so much his policy points but his appearance. Looking gaunt and unkempt after a gruelling campaign and a bout of illness, Nixon appeared weak in comparison to the well-rested, good-looking Kennedy. Most commentators see the debate as the turning point in the outcome of the election.

Wiping the sweat away: the heat of TV got to Nixon in 1960
Wiping the sweat away: the heat of TV got to Nixon in 1960

Another infamous example came during the 1980 election campaign when Ronald Reagan used a series of charismatic put-downs to undermine the credibility of incumbent Jimmy Carter. Granted, Carter did not help himself by declaring that he had discussed nuclear policy with his prepubescent daughter. Yet, Reagan still humiliated Carter. In response to a barrage of criticism regarding his Governorship of California, Reagan merely sighed and said: ‘there you go again’. With a casual and humorous retort, Reagan had made the audience immediately forget Carter’s attack and the President was made to look like a child himself such was the nature of the admonishment.

TV debates also favour the outsider, particularly if more than two parties are present. Independent Ross Perot caused a stir after an impressive TV performance during the 1992 US Presidential Election. Nick Clegg, a man since proven to be devoid of ideas or leadership quality, achieved a similar spike in popularity for the Liberal Democrats following the first TV debate in the 2010 UK General Election.

Many people voted for Clegg in 2010 because of his performances during the debates and yet such is the disappointment in his subsequent political efforts as part of the coalition government that the Liberal Democrats are no longer the UK’s third most popular party. Indeed, they could conceivably finish sixth in May.

The stock of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats has fallen drastically since 2010
The stock of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats has fallen drastically since 2010

TV debates in no way reflect reality and they rarely have anything important to say in terms of policy which is, essentially, what people should be voting for. Cameron has rightfully calculated that his opponents are devoid of any significant policy initiatives and that they merely want a series of debates so that they can attack his record, whilst simultaneously making wild promises which they would never honour once in power.

In outlining his proposal, Cameron has made this General Election about policy and accountability, not bluster and negativity. He is an incumbent unwilling to relinquish his throne before the eyes of the nation.