Theresa May's U.K. election gamble now looks like risky bet

Theresa May called an election seven weeks ago, likely hoping to increase her Conservatives' majority at the expense of a weakened Labour Party. But polls indicate what had been a foregone conclusion is now anything but.

Polls show Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party closing gap as Britain readies for Thursday's vote

Theresa May's Conservatives have seen their lead over Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party shrink throughout the U.K. election campaign. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

When British Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election for June 8, she was likely planning to capitalize on the weakness of her opposition, while also giving her party a larger majority to better negotiate the U.K.'s exit from the European Union.

But the campaign has not gone according to plan.

May started the campaign with an 18-point lead over Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party and looked set to give herself more wiggle room in Parliament than the narrow majority won by her predecessor, David Cameron, in 2015.

Most of that lead has disappeared. In surveys conducted by eight pollsters in the last week, the Conservatives have averaged 43.3 per cent support against Labour's 36.8 per cent, shrinking the margin between the two parties to just 6.5 points — nearly identical to the 6.3-point edge by which the Conservatives won two years ago.

Since 2015, this represents an increase of about six points for both the Tories and Labour, largely at the expense of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

After the Leave victory in last year's Brexit referendum, the anti-EU UKIP has lacked direction and a suitable replacement for former party leader Nigel Farage.

In a recent ComRes poll, just eight per cent of Britons held a favourable opinion of the new UKIP leader, Paul Nuttall.

At 4.4 per cent support, the UKIP has dropped more than eight points and fallen behind the Liberal Democrats, who stand at 7.8 per cent. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has also taken a hit, but is still poised to win most of the seats in Scotland.

Applying a simple uniform swing to the 2015 results, based on where the polls stand today, gives the Conservatives about as many seats as they had at dissolution — meaning another narrow majority.

Labour gains throughout campaign

Corbyn, a former Labour backbencher thrust to the party's leadership with the support of new, left-leaning members, had led his party to historic lows as his MPs revolted and forced a second leadership vote (that Corbyn won). With such internal turmoil roiling within the party — and Corbyn trailing May by a significant margin in personal appeal — a snap election call appeared opportune for the Conservatives.

But since that call, Labour has consistently made gains in popular support. The Conservatives also saw an uptick once the campaign got underway: roughly half of those who voted UKIP two years ago now back the Tories.

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has closed the gap on Theresa May. (Andrew Yates/Reuters)

Things turned against the Conservatives, however, as the campaign wore on. A botched release of the party's platform, a calculated front-runners campaign, and the terror attack in Manchester have contributed to a drop in May's support.

Since the platform release and Manchester bombing, the Conservatives have dropped three points — with Labour gaining four.

And though Corbyn is still 15 points back of May when it comes to who is seen as the best person to be prime minister, his average score of 31 per cent in recent polls is more than double where he started at the campaign's outset.

Opportunities for May

Nevertheless, despite Labour's gains, the Conservatives have reasonable hopes of expanding their majority in the House of Commons.

In Scotland — hostile territory for the Conservatives over the last three decades — the Tories are up 13 points and ahead of Labour. The SNP, which took 50 per cent of the vote in Scotland in 2015, is down 10 points.

The Conservatives are also polling ahead of Labour in Wales, won by Labour by 10 points in the last election.

And while Labour has widened its edge over the Tories slightly in London, the Conservatives have shown new strength in Northern England and the Midlands.

Altogether, this gives the Conservatives opportunity to win new seats at the geographic periphery of the U.K.

But instead of swinging a significant number of seats their way and winning a majority of historic proportions, the most optimistic forecasts now give the Conservatives a little more than 360 seats. The party needs 326 to avoid a hung Parliament.​

Uncertain times

After the polls suggested the Conservatives and Labour were neck-and-neck in 2015, there is some justification for looking at the polls in this campaign with some skepticism.

Pollsters have adjusted accordingly, trying new methods of weighting their samples and estimating likely turnout.

On the one hand, this might lessen the potential for the polls to underestimate Conservative support, as has happened in recent elections. On the other hand, the efforts may prove to be an overcompensation, based on factors that do not apply to this present campaign.

A giant scaffolding sculpture of Theresa May wearing the Union Jack is seen on top of the cliffs overlooking the south coast of England, toward continental Europe. The U.K.'s snap election call was seen as a way to bolster the Conservative Party's position ahead of upcoming Brexit negotiations. (Simon Hare/Reuters)

The polls themselves have varied greatly. Eight pollsters in the field in the past week have given the Conservatives a lead as wide as 12 points, and as narrow as one. Applying a uniform swing to the numbers, four of those results would produce a Conservative majority — in some cases substantially larger than the one May had at dissolution.

The other four polls would result in a hung Parliament and the Conservatives potentially struggling to find governing partners.

No polls yet suggest that the Labour Party is in a position to win the most seats. But the momentum is clearly with Corbyn and his party. If they continue to ride the wave that has unexpectedly carried them back into contention, May's gambit will have been a failure.

If some of the polls that suggest the Conservatives can win a larger majority prove accurate, then May's roll of the dice will have paid off.

But it has turned out to be a risky move, whatever the results: When May called this snap election seven weeks ago, the result two days out was not supposed to be this uncertain.

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.