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Is the front-runner going to be caught?

The volatility of electorates across the democratic world shows no sign of abating if the polls for the British general elections, to be held today, are anything to go by. 

What had been widely billed as a dull and plodding British election is finally getting spicy, with massive implications for British foreign policy given the gulf between the competing visions of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. 

Back in April when Prime Minister May called this snap election, her lead according to some polls was a historically massive 20 points. Majorities in excess of 200 seats were even touted. 

The polls over the weekend, just five days before voting on June 8, hinted at a tightening cliff-hanger race, ranging from a 12-point margin for May’s Conservative Party or just a single point according to Survation. A YouGov poll earlier this week forecast that the Conservatives will not even get a majority, winning just 304 seats to the 330 they had before the election. The target is 326 seats to achieve a majority. 

A coalition of Labour and the Scottish National Party (SNP) with Liberal Democrat support cannot be ruled out, or even just a Labour minority government. Different polling methodologies are being used and voter share in the British elections does not always reflect the share of seats in Parliament. 

It is quite something that May is now fighting for her job. So where might it have gone wrong? It was never a campaign that ignited or inspired the nation and for certain, the British electorate bristles at any sense of being taken for granted.

As with a long-distance runner or a cyclist, leading from the front can be very challenging. Ahead, the tendency is to protect a lead, be defensive and risk-averse. The competition has nothing to lose and is instinctively bold, takes risks and tries to be different. In many ways this is exactly what has happened here. 

With everything to lose, May opted out of any face-to-face debates with her opponents and was widely criticized for avoiding engagement with the broader public, opting for carefully selected audiences and with journalists having to submit questions in advance. Fearing gaffes and going off script, May’s public utterances became formulaic and almost robotic. 

At the start of the campaign her stump soundbites of the need for a “strong and stable” government and the risk of a “coalition of chaos” under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, worked. But these lines were never refreshed and they became an object of mirth not a weapon.

Like with long-distance runners or cyclists, leading from the front can be very challenging — as Theresa May has found ahead of today’s UK election.

Chris Doyle

The Conservative manifesto was thin in specifics, not least costings and just like May’s negotiating positions on Brexit, it was as if the prime minister did not want to reveal her hand or be handcuffed to manifesto commitments she would then prefer to ditch. 

The key tuning point, however, was when she had to do just that. It took all of four days before she had to rip up a deeply unpopular social care policy in the manifesto. Instead of the strong determined leadership she had been trying to project, there was a sense of panic from which she has yet to recover. “Weak and wobbly,” cried her critics.

All of this has helped Corbyn grow in confidence and stature. His prospects at the start were minimal. The overwhelming majority of Labour MPs had opposed him. The Labour Party is massively divided and cannot coalesce around any consensus on what was presumed to be the primary election issue, Brexit. 

But campaigning and rallies are Corbyn’s natural habitat and gets his juices flowing far more than other elements of leading a party. He is more at ease and relaxed with the public than his opponent. 

What is not clear is how the recent terrorist atrocities will affect voting. The Conservatives may have expected to benefit from arguing that they will grant further powers to the security services, but Labour and others have seemingly hit back hard and effectively in citing the police cuts during May’s six-year tenure as home secretary. The government refuses to give figures but the perception is increasingly that in the era of austerity, public safety may have been compromised by reductions in police numbers. Remarkably, it was Corbyn who managed to paint May as weak on terrorism. 

Much will depend on voter turnout. Polls indicate that 65 percent of over 65s will vote for the Conservatives and around 70 percent of the youth vote will go to Labour. The trouble is the youth turnout at the 2015 elections was half that of pensioners.

For sure, Theresa May will probably fall over the winning line, not least as the narrow polls will shake off any complacency among Tory voters. If May does not get a sizeable majority, then she will be seen to have lost and be vastly diminished, not least in the eyes of her own party. The point of the election was to get her a bulletproof majority but she may well be a wounded leader as she starts the Brexit talks in mid-June. 

• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.