EDITORIAL: Softer Brexit in voters’ hands as Tory’s poll lead shrinks
British Prime Minister Theresa May must surely be ruing the day she called a snap general election for June 8. With just two days to go, she has to deal with the second terror attack in the UK in just more than two weeks and a sharp slide in support for her Conservative Party.
May called the election, so she said, to get a clear statement of support for her government as the one best positioned to lead the UK out of the EU — giving effect to the mandate voters gave her government in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
May said it was because some parties were trying to undermine the Brexit process that she has already triggered and in which she seeks a "hard" exit from Europe rather than the softer version many would favour.
But most commentators reckoned May was simply trying to capitalise on the huge lead the Tories had in the polls at that stage so as to crush the Labour Party and give her a long, uninterrupted stretch in power.
So much for that.
The Conservative Party’s lead has narrowed dramatically, to the point where one pollster, YouGov, has predicted a hung parliament, with the Tories losing their majority. The YouGov prediction is based on a forecasting model rather than on polling as such, so it could be wrong about the hung parliament. But no one expects the landslide Conservative win that May was confident of when she called the election.
At that stage, according to Financial Times research, it was 43% Tory to 25% Labour, a 18-point lead; now that lead has narrowed to just seven points, with Labour’s share jumping to 37%. That is less because voters like or trust the party’s hardline left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, than because they don’t like May or her policies, hard Brexit included.
The Labour manifesto, with its promises to improve the health service — and social services generally — has gone down well, while May’s many policy U-turns have gone down badly. She is looking increasingly strained and defensive as she battles to deal with hard questioning by voters as well as with the fallout of the horrifying terror attacks, first in Manchester and now in London — attacks that could have been triggered by the election call.
The outcome on Thursday could yet surprise us, in either direction, given how surprising elections everywhere tend to be these days. Much will depend on who turns out; younger voters are as enthusiastic about Corbyn as older voters are about May, but younger ones tend not to vote.
No one expects the landslide Conservative win that May was confident of when she called the election
The outcome matters not only to the UK, but also to Europe and to SA, given that the UK and Europe are among our leading trade and investment partners. A narrow victory for May could help to temper her hardline views on Brexit and put pressure on her to take a more accommodating stance on key issues such as trade and migration. That would probably be good for Europe and for UK. And what is good for those economies is likely to be good for SA and for the South African companies and banks whose fortunes are closely tied to those of the UK.
A Corbyn victory has seemed, until recently, such an outlandish notion that few have seriously contemplated its implications for the economy or for markets. The higher corporate tax rates he threatens would certainly be a minus, but a softer Brexit could be a plus.
A Liberal Democrat victory would put an end to Brexit altogether, but that is not going to happen. This could be one of those elections in which markets might not be entirely comfortable whatever the outcome.
Meanwhile, the pound is taking a beating on the terror attacks and the possibility of a hung parliament, with the rand looking strong against sterling. Those doing business with the UK might want to seize the moment.