Oh Snap! Would Tories Have Won If Theresa May Gave Voters Face-To-Face Political Sound-Offs?

Be that as it may, could the outcome of GE2017 be different if she simply attended the seven-way debate on May 31st?

Her no-debate approach may have been an influential factor that inhibited a successful 2017 election campaign. Instead, the Conservative Leader preferred to meet with voters and answer questions from the public.

‘debates where the politicians are squabbling amongst themselves doesn’t do anything for the process of electioneering’ — Theresa May
Were polls affected because voters felt as if the Conservative Fox wanted to stay in a hole?

Tories could have lost less support if Theresa May actively attended live debates with political party leaders. Extensive volumes of polling data from 27 pollsters were analysed between April — June 2017, sourced from reliable data provided by Huffington Pollster.

Figure 1. Chart showing the trend in the change between the gap in polls, between Conservative and Labour, starting from the snap election’s announcement date.
  1. Green. The last PMQs before GE2017 April 25
  2. Red. Jeremy Corbyn Speech “It’s Time to Step Up for Britain” April 29
  3. Blue. Theresa May in Yorkshire and Interview with her husband. May 9
  4. Red. Former PM and Leader of Labour, Gordon Brown Live May 11
  5. Pink. Jeremy Corbyn speech at Chatham House May 12
  6. Blue. Interview with Theresa May, Conservative Leader May 22
  7. Red. Interview with Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Leader May 26
  8. Green. Corbyn and May interviewed in front of studio audience May 29
  9. Pink. Debate with 6 party leaders; Theresa May did not attend May 31
  10. Green. May and Corbyn, Live at BBC Question Time special June 2
  11. Yellow. No gap. The polls for both parties were equal. June 3

How to read the chart in figure 1.

The main purple line shows a trend of the change in the gap between the Conservative & Labour party. One can notice that the gap values are all positive which means the leading party was always Conservative.

Each upward spike shows an increase in gap that favoured Conservatives. Similarly, each downward spike shows a decrease in gap which favoured Labour.

#plotting the gap difference chart
poll_diff.plot('Start Date','Difference', figsize=(12,4),marker='o',linestyle='-', color='#76608A')
plt.ylabel('Gap Difference in Polls')
plt.xlabel('Commencement Date of Poll')

Discussing the results

Following the ITV debate on May 18th the gap increased in the Tories’ favour despite Theresa May failing to attend. Does this weaken the hypothesis? No, here’s why.

Although both Labour and Conservative leaders did not appear for the ITV debate, their doing so were for different reasons.

“Jeremy will not take part in an opposition leaders debate. The British people have the right see a head-to-head debate between the only two people who could form the next government — and the Prime Minister’s refusal is a sign of weakness, not of strength,” a Labour spokesperson informed The Independent.

ITV conducted the debate with only political leaders of SNP, Liberal Democrats, Ukip, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and special advisors to represent Conservative and Labour leaders.

The influential factor — Corbyn’s attendance.

The influential factor was not simply if Theresa May failed to attend, but Corbyn’s attendance appears to be a co-dependant variable. Meaning, Conservatives were affected negatively in the polls when Theresa May did not attend a debate but Corbyn was present.

This conclusion was gathered after a substantial increase in the gap after May 31st, the seven-way debate (Fig 1. Seen at the 2nd pink marker). The gap showed a sharp change, significantly decreasing as Labour quickly caught up to Conservatives.

Was Theresa May Given Good Advice? “Avoid FTF Debates”

Assumptions from the results.

The gap took a swing with a sharp increase in favour of Conservatives after three particular events.

Figure 2. Repeating Figure 1 — for ease of referring to the chart.
  • April 25 — The last PMQs before GE2017 (Fig 2. Seen at the 1st green marker),
  • May 9. Live coverage of Theresa May’s speech (Fig 2. 1st blue marker).
  • May 29. Corbyn and Theresa May were interviewed by a live studio audience. They did not face off against each other, neither share the stage at any point in time.(Fig 2. 2nd green marker).

The PMQs

The last PMQs (Prime Minister’s Question Time) on April 25th was quite heated as it lasted a record, almost double its usual allocated time. The sound-off included questions from the voters thrown at May on topics of NHS, wages, housing, pensions and school funding. Theresa May enthusiastically supported by her backbenchers as she hits Corbyn head on with forceful, confident answers. She vigorously defended the Conservative’s initiatives while blatantly flaunting their triumphs and at times, showed a bit of a smirky attitude.

Theresa May’s two appearances — May 9th.

  1. Questioning on the campaign trail in Yorkshire

Here, she disclosed the energy price cap to be set by an independent regulator as too many working families are paying too much for energy but also admitted that prices may go up. Another issue that she dealt with was NHS, also failing to give assurances of any reductions. However, this did not seem to have a negative impact on the polls following immediately after.

2. BBC The One Show with her husband, Philip

The two showed a rather relaxed, personal side where polices were discussed together with an idea of the everyday routine life as a married couple. This could have influenced the change in polls to favour Conservatives. Despite what seemed to be a successful interview, some media poorly framed the message of the interview and shed undeservingly, negative light when the couple spoke of ‘boy jobs and girl jobs’. Theresa May was clearly joking at the time and even when Philip stated he generally does most of the ‘boy jobs’….am I mistaken here to think that this man, is a supporting husband of the female Prime Minister? From my perspective, they appeared to have a modern, non-sexist relationship in which the wife has a powerful job in a male-dominated arena while having her husband at her side.

All in all, showing her personal, human touch could have been an influential factor for widening the gap.

3. Live question session with studio audience — Both Leaders.

Despite not sharing the stage, as Theresa May adamantly stated she will not argue head-on with Corbyn, the questioning sessions were pretty heated and quite engaging. Jeremy Paxman took each leader one-to-one then the studio audience had a go at them.

The audience was not pleased with many issues, for instance Dementia Tax and even outwardly mocked Theresa May on the issue of school funding. There was no clear winner at this questioning, even tho both parties seemed content with their performances.

Each time a live appearance was made by Labour Leader (red), gaps shortened as Labour crept up in the polls.

Shortcomings of this study and its assumptions.

Bias and errors in the raw data collection have to be considered for the accuracy of this study. Secondly, in reality, many other co-dependant variables exist that influence the election results. For instance, when Theresa May failed to attend the seven-way debate, there could have been countless other reasons for the change in polls such as (but not restricted to):

  • social media ad frequency at that time
  • the framing of news headlines on that day
  • localised crimes/terrorism that affect mood
  • popular/influential talk shows being aired on that date


Expanding on the point of terrorism as an external factor, a noticeable coincidence occurred on two of the occasions in which appearances by Theresa May led to conservatives being favoured.

One being the Attack on the Arianna Grande concert in Manchester May 22 being the day before Theresa May’s interview (2nd blue marker) where the polls started to shift in favour of Tories. Secondly, even more of a temporary change in the polls after the London Bridge/Borough Market attack June 3. On June 3rd, the polls were equal as Labour quickly caught up to Tories.

Summary of Data Exploration

Which pollsters were used?

YouGov, IPSOS MORI, Survation, ICM Unlimited, The Guardian, Panelbase, Kantar Public, Opinium, Mail on Sunday, Good Morning Britain, Independent on Sunday, The Times, Independent, ORB, Daily Telegraph, Evening Standard, Sunday Mirror, Survey Monkey, The Sun, Opinion, Observer, ITV and Com Res.

Figure 3. Data used for the time series analysis. It is a sample only showing the first 5 of 32 rows.
Figure 4. Polling Averages For Each Political Party

Figure 2 shows the leading parties in the race were Conservatives and Labour with Undecided having a strong influence in how votes can sway.

For this reason, the standard deviation was calculated to assume a value, in the event undecideds were split between Conservative and Labour.

#inline code 
|averages for Torries and Labour & the people who remain undecided |
avg = pd.DataFrame(poll_df.mean())
#dropping the average Number of Observations columns 
avg.drop('Number of Observations',axis=0,inplace=True)
#standard deviation for the averages 
std = pd.DataFrame(poll_df.std())
std.drop('Number of Observations',axis=0,inplace=True)
Fig 3. The chart combines the 2017 election opinion polls into trendlines. It is a time series to show the gaps between Conservative, Labour, Undecided and Liberal Democrat.

Figure 3. The time-series analysis using Pandas shows the trend as the election date drew nearer. The gap got smaller, in favour of Labour.

#inline code
poll_df.plot(x='EndDate',y['Conservative','Labour','Undecided','LiberalDemocrat'],linestyle='',marker='o') plt.ylabel('Opinion Poll %')plt.xlabel('Date The Poll Finished')

Voters Need To Window Shop

Conclusion. A Head-to-Head debate is similar to a Display of Goods.
Window Shopping — Lure the customer’s interest before converting them into a paying customer, or in this case, into a voter.

Theresa May’s approach of focusing on knocking on doors and taking the people seriously by hearing their questions is a sound, effective and respectable approach. However a flaw in this method is that she assumed the conversion of a person into a person of interest (one who will attend a local campaign speech) was a given when in reality is very difficult. Making a person change from undecided to interested in the Conservative party then into a converted customer (a voter) could have been easier through the head-to-head debates with Jeremy Corbyn as people get a proper sense of ‘display of the goods’, similarly to window shopping.

Give them a fight worth watching.

Based on the results of the analysis, an assumption for the correlation seen, in particular the gain in favour of Labour after the 7 Party debate is that voters, in particular young voters may have gained confidence in the Conservatives if the party leader came out and gave a live, strong verbal fight and stood up against other leaders.

It is probable that voters would have been less influenced by actual discussions on political issues such as Brexit negotiations, nuclear weapons, dementia tax, NHS and school funding than they were by Theresa May’s reluctance to go head-to-head with Jeremy Corbyn. This conclusion was formed since even after Theresa May was grilled on issues and policies with questions in live interviews, the polls changed course in favour of Conservatives and further greater in Conservative’s favour after the head-to-head PMQ’s.

Perhaps people just want a good verbal spar without even absorbing the depth of issues. Similar to being entertained while watching a movie yet ignorant as to what exactly the characters’ scripts mean.