This morning the party spin-doctors are frantically doing the rounds across TV and radio, in an attempt to convince the electorate that their leader won yesterday night’s TV Q&A, simulcast live across Channel 4 and Sky News. Divorced from the rhetoric of party political messaging, the view starting to solidify in the minds of commentators is that Corbyn confounded expectations with an assured and, at times, relaxed performance. Theresa May, by contrast was handicapped by her record of governing and suffered from occasionally stilted delivery. Her team will testify that a governing record is always harder for the incumbent to defend, while Corbyn simply had to defend his views, some of which he has to tried to reshape.
The reality is that since the start of the campaign, the polls have narrowed uncomfortably for the Conservatives. This latest Opinium poll has the Tories on 45 points and Labour on 35 points, a narrowing of three on the week before. Equally telling is that the talk of huge landslide-scale majorities amongst Conservative outriders in the media have slowly started to dissipate. No one expects May to lose this election, but the current polls now point to around a 70 seat majority – sizeable but no longer earth shattering.
Corbyn has enjoyed relative success in this campaign by successfully shoring up his base and, after a slightly rocky start, avoiding any dramatic miss-steps. As Opinium’s data points out, 39% of people say their opinion of Corbyn is more positive now than when the campaign began. Historically moderate Labour voters, once disenfranchised by the Labour leader, are now warming to him, buoyed by a populist manifesto and an avuncular personal style.
The impact of Labour’s consolidation of their position is unclear. In a First Past The Post election, much depends on where you make gains; anecdotally, there is some evidence for Labour ‘stacking up’ votes in its strongholds, while many marginals remain in play, with many seats in the North still looking quite vulnerable. Nevertheless, it is almost certain that they will now be able to salvage seats which had previously looked lost. It was not a coincidence that the Conservatives decided to launch their manifesto in Halifax – a Labour held marginal of only 428. Back in the heady days before they launched their manifesto, Halifax was exactly the sort of seat the Conservatives expected to take on their way to a crushing victory. Now though, seats like Halifax and other Labour marginal such as Hampstead and Kilburn, look much more defendable.
So what next, as we enter into the final full week of the campaign? The Conservatives, led by May’s co-chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, as well as strategist Sir Lynton Crosby, will desperate try to turn the campaign back onto the issue of Brexit. This, after all, was why the prime minister called the election in the first place, yet it has been noticeably absent from much of the election debate so far. The mental of image of Corbyn sitting around the negotiation table opposite Michael Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker is one that the Tories will try to paint vividly in the coming days, in the belief that this, more than anything, will be enough instil enough horror in the minds of voters to widen the gap between the two parties once again. The polling evidence suggests this could be decisive – with May still enjoying a considerable (if reduced) lead over Corbyn on leadership. It also plays to a key and unaltered factor in this campaign – the transfer of around 50% of UKIP votes to the Conservatives. This is vital for the Conservatives, and something which, if they retain it to polling day, considerably bolsters their chance s of winning new seats while holding off challenges from other parties.