General Election 2017: Has the Conservative lead peaked?

Theresa May is about to be scrutinised like never before
Theresa May is about to be scrutinised like never before

Theresa May remains well clear in the polls but her lead shrunk considerably at the weekend. With the campaign and scrutiny only just beginning, Paul Krishnamurty wonders if it has already peaked...

"May has avoided much scrutiny to date, especially over domestic issues. It simply isn't realistic to avoid talking about them during the election and it is easy to envisage the shine coming off her brand."

Ever since Theresa May stunned us all by announcing this snap election, political bettors have broadly fallen into two camps. Those of us who regard the Conservatives - especially for Most Seats - as a stone-cold certainty. The best chance to earn 5% or so interest on your money over a few weeks. As my tweet from that day shows, I am firmly in that camp.

On the other, contrarians legitimately point to the massive shocks of 2016. Almost the entire commentariat gave Donald Trump no chance of winning the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency. Brexit blew away the longstanding record of Betfair favourites winning every major election. If those two could land bigger than ten to one upsets on polling day, surely it is too early to dismiss Jeremy Corbyn?

These contrarians may, briefly at least, have had a spring in their step after some much improved polls for Labour over the weekend. Sure, four surveys showing Tory leads between 11 and 17% can hardly be said to place the result in doubt. But equally, any double-digit swing in the space of a week is worthy of comment. It has profound implications for our range of side markets - whether that be the betting in marginal constituencies, seat totals or Size Of Conservative Majority. If their lead fell to six or seven, even winning an Overall Majority at all would be in doubt.

Such an extreme turnaround is not on my radar. The fundamentals are too strong. In the two years since Labour lost by 7%, just about every dynamic has worked against them. Post Brexit, UKIP are collapsing, to the Tories' overwhelming benefit. On the big question - who do you trust to lead the Brexit negotiations? - there is no contest. Jeremy Corbyn is historically unpopular, compared to the most popular Tory leader in living memory.

Nevertheless, they provide a timely reminder that polls are merely snapshots of opinion, which can change fast. Much can happen over the next five weeks during a fevered campaign. Even if Labour winning never even becomes realistic, there is much to play for, particularly in 100 or so marginal constituencies.

Right now, it feels like the calm before the storm. Neither Tory or Labour manifesto has been released yet, making for tedious TV as interviewers deliberately ask questions to which they already know an answer will not be forthcoming. May and her team's relentless repetition of the 'strong, stable leadership' mantra is already being widely mocked.

Local election results expected to compound's Labour's woes

If you don't enjoy watching on-message politicians being humiliated by Andrew Neil, steer clear of BBC2 after midnight on Thursday. Especially if you're a Labour supporter, whom psephologists unanimously predict will lose hundreds of councillors.

These results will tell us a great deal about the regional picture and present a terrifying narrative for Jeremy Corbyn's party. Already absent from the South outside cities, expect a huge swing towards the Tories in Wales, the Midlands and even parts of the North. Doom-mongers will predict a repeat of their Scottish wipeout although, as I wrote last week, Labour's resilience may be under-rated.

However this scenario is not without danger for the Tories. If nobody thinks there's even a remote chance of a change in PM, it becomes harder to frame the election as a straightforward question of personality and strong leadership. It could negate fear of what Tories label a 'coalition of chaos' - a strategy which worked so well in 2015.

Manifesto launches could change the subject from Brexit

Likewise if May is a cert, voters might start asking for a bit more detail. The media have to generate interest and just trolling a guy who can't win isn't enough. While Labour reps will continue to flounder in interviews, Tories will have plenty of their own difficult moments on policy - whether that be the Brexit divorce settlement, tax, pensions or the NHS. That will really kick in after the manifestos are published and, on current form, neither party is going to come out of it looking good.

Thanks to a combination of weak opposition and Brexit sucking up all the media oxygen, May has avoided much scrutiny to date, especially over domestic issues. It simply isn't realistic to avoid talking about them during the election and it is easy to envisage the shine coming off her brand. Refusing to do TV debates won't help. Political honeymoons are short.

None of this threatens her victory because of those fundamentals but, were the old, pre-Brexit stains on the Tory brand resurface, it would seriously impact their ability to make massive, rather than moderate, gains off Labour. It could mobilise anti-Tory tactical voting, bringing former Lib Dem strongholds back into play. They are set for a great local election night and well-placed if swing voters feel free to register a protest, safe in the knowledge that Corbyn can't win.

Realistically, the best opposition parties can hope for is to score some hits during the campaign and restrict the Tory majority - anything below 100 would be a success. On the other end of the scale, the historic targets have slipped back from their betting peak. Collectively, the bands above 400 in our Conservative Seats market traded odds-on. A 50% Vote Share traded below [3.0]. These are unprecedented levels of support - no government since WW2 won over half the votes.

I suspect the polls are stabilising, with anti-Corbyn Labour voters coming home. Earlier 20% plus leads reflected euphoria among Brexiteers after Article 50 was triggered, propelling May to her peak. Something like 45-30 is the new normal, with 100 roughly par for the size of majority.

Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.

Paul Krishnamurty,

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