George Parker: Voters confound journalists by being so taken with Theresa May

Posted On: 
18th May 2017

Her caution exasperates lobby journalists but, George Parker finds, Theresa May’s personal popularity on the streets makes her the Tories’ biggest electoral asset

Theresa May meeting voters out on the campaign trail
PA Images

Political journalists are often wont to throw stones at “out of touch” politicians inhabiting their gothic palace by the Thames, although in truth the accusation could just as easily be turned against us. Elections give us a chance to get out a bit more.

And one of the unavoidable lessons of the 2017 general election is that Theresa May has clearly struck a chord with the British electorate in a way which – frankly – still seems a bit baffling to lobby journalists stuck at Westminster.

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From the press gallery, the prime minister is viewed as slightly dull, cautious and impossible to fathom. Interviewers approach the task with a heavy heart, anxiously watching their watches as the minutes tick away with no sign of a story.

My colleague Tim Shipman of the Sunday Times heroically tried to tease out some human interest from May with a series of quick fire questions this month. Sample: Q. “Sherlock or Midsomer Murders?” A: “I’ve watched both.”

And yet, a trip to the working class suburb of Erdington in Birmingham showed just how popular May is in the country. Here in the Labour seat of Jack Dromey, former Labour voters were happy to explain why they were voting Tory, many for the first time.

“I think she’s for us – she seems like one of us,” said Paul Ashford, a 48-year-old builder. How exactly did he relate to May, the home counties vicar’s daughter who lives in a posh village by the Thames? “It’s just the way she is,” he said.

The practice of “vox popping” by journalists is one of the less scientific approaches to psephology and there were plenty of people who were sticking with Labour in Erdington, but time and again lifelong Labour people said they were switching.

May was “courageous” or “strong minded” or “straightforward”, all characteristics that voters seem to think are important as the country approaches Brexit. Incidentally, it was hard to find voters in Erdington high street with similarly positive things to say about Jeremy Corbyn.

The success of Conservative strategists in building a campaign around “Theresa May’s Team” – relegating the Tory brand to a footnote – is reflected in opinion polls suggesting she is heading for a sizeable Commons majority. Some polls put the Tories in the high 40s.

Step back and think about that for a second. This is a party which has been presiding over seven years of austerity and stagnant living standards, while the strains are starting to show in schools, hospitals and social care.

In addition May is framing the election around Brexit, even though she personally opposed it and her party accidentally delivered the policy to the country in a referendum David Cameron was certain he would win.

May’s success has been to embody Brexit, a policy originally backed by 52% in the 2016 referendum but now also reluctantly backed by a further 23% of people YouGov calls “Re-Leavers”: people who voted Remain but now accept the government must respect the referendum result.

The crumbling of the Remain vote is the principal reason why the Liberal Democrats are struggling to break through, and why the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has started talking about being a “bit of a Eurosceptic” and how he had a picture of Margaret Thatcher on his wall as a teenager.

These are powerful political currents but they were not immediately visible from the press gallery before this campaign got underway. Corbyn and Farron have three weeks to find a way to navigate through them.   


George Parker is political editor of the Financial Times