The vicar’s daughter is going where the son of the manse feared to tread.

First published in the Scottish Mail on Sunday, 28th May, 2017.

By Paul Sinclair

Theresa May is living the nightmare in this election campaign that stopped Gordon Brown from calling an early poll in 2007.

The similarities are compelling. A new leader whose awkwardness is initially seen by the electorate as a sign of authenticity. A breath of fresh air in contrast to the cloying smoothness and ‘spin’ of their predecessor.

When Gordon Brown fluffed his lines on the day he became Prime Minister and said that his school motto was that he would do his ‘upmust’, rather than ‘utmost’, his approval ratings went off the scale. Ordinary people warmed to the idea that their leader was as nervous as they would have been if they had been assuming the greatest office in the land.

Like Theresa May, Gordon Brown enjoyed better than expected approval ratings. The prize of a reassuring mandate in an early election victory was more than tempting.

Gordon Brown, of course, wasn’t seduced. The poor handling of him calling off the ‘election that never was,’ damaged him.

But Brown didn’t ‘bottle it’. Polls told him he would win. Even the worst assured victory. But they suggested he could be returned with a smaller majority than the 66 Tony Blair won in 2005.

The bar was set higher than merely winning. To get a majority smaller than Blair’s would have led to gossip that Gordon Brown couldn’t sell the Labour message. It would have played to the weaknesses his enemies perceived of him. Leadership hopefuls would have invested in phone banks.

Prime Minister Brown decided discretion was the better part of valour and postponed his date with the electorate.

A decade later and the vicar’s daughter has chosen to march on land where the son of the manse feared to tread.

That Theresa May will defeat Jeremy Corbyn on 8 June is not in serious doubt — despite the narrowing polls. The problem is neither she, nor we, know where the bar is set. We don’t know what victory looks like.

The Prime Minister is up against the worst leader in the history of the Labour Party. In this she is like a major football club playing against a minnow in a cup competition.

If Manchester United drew Accrington Stanley in the FA Cup it would be a tie they couldn’t emerge from with credit. A drubbing would be expected without kudos if it was achieved. A 1–0 win would be seen as a poor performance and anything less a disaster.

Theresa May will be returned, but if she cannot rout Corbyn doubts about her will multiply like bluebottles in a butcher’s window on a summer’s day.

In this she is not helped by the people around her. If Tony Blair built a team of advisors, Gordon Brown’s looked like a tribe. You were either in the family or an outsider.

Theresa May’s advisers have shrunk that nuclear family even further while retaining the feel of weapons of mass destruction. They have the whiff of Mafia bodyguards.

You can get away with that when you are winning. You can refer to the Chancellor with profanities and diss your own hand picked foreign secretary.

But if Theresa May does not secure a victory as emphatic and unambiguous as her team’s views of her colleagues she will sink into insecurity.

Chancellors will become more difficult to move. Radical re-shuffles will transform into intricate rearguard actions. She will need friends but her people don’t seem to be willing to make any.

Her problem is in part that her opponent if so duff. No one thinks that Jeremy Corbyn can win. Many think that a vote for him is a free hit at the piñata without the danger of the donkey bursting.

But Theresa May’s handling of this election campaign has made this a contest between duff and duffer. To be the first major party leader to u-turn on a manifesto pledge before polling day — as she did on social care — was remarkable.

Her angry assertion that ‘nothing has changed’ looked like a tantrum and not the Thatcherite firmness that might deliver ‘strong and stable’ government.

The lentil eating, terrorist supporting Corbyn may lie his way through TV interviews but he looks a more assured performer than Theresa May.

The line between awkwardness suggesting endearing authenticity or chaotic amateurism is perilously thin. She is treading it.

Most politicians like to make elections about ‘can do’ policies. Theresa May has chosen to make this one about candour. Her policy offer so far just makes her look dour.

There will be panic in Number Ten this weekend. This is an election they did not need to call and indeed they pledged they wouldn’t.

So far they have damaged the sense of honesty that their candidate’s natural demeanour exuded. They thought they were much further down the line to ‘sealing the deal’ with the electorate than they actually are.

Former Labour voters have made the decision to leave the family. They are on their first date with the Tories but that doesn’t mean they will just jump into bed with anyone. They need to be reassured that they are at least seeing their ‘type’.

Ruth Davidson has managed to do that on this side of the border, now Theresa May needs to do it on her side of Hadrian’s Wall.

The first thing that panic consumes is judgement. Beating Jeremy Corbyn over the head with quotes of his support of the IRA or Hamas is not enough. You cannot damage a person’s credibility when they don’t have any.

Theresa May needs to re-establish her own in the next ten days or this could be her last election.

She is living the nightmare but at least Gordon Brown can sleep easy.

Ends

Les Tricoteueses were women who sat knitting between guillotine beheadings during the ‘Terror’ after the French revolution.

I met their modern equivalent last week when I attended the BBC’s leaders debate and bumped into the SNP’s Jeane Freeman and Joanna Cherry.

Ms. Freeman, a former lobbyist and quango jockey turned government minister, egged Ms. Cherry on to erroneously denounce a critic of Nicola Sturgeon for being married to a Tory councillor. That ended well.

How the Labour Party must be relieved they never chose either of these former members as candidates.

ends

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