Until a week ago, two things were widely agreed about Britain’s upcoming general election: it was producing the dullest campaign in recent memory and the result was a foregone conclusion. It would be a coronation march for Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May.
Then a bomb blast killed 22 people at a concert in Manchester, bringing campaigning to a shocked halt. When the debates, ads and stump speeches resumed three days later, they were delivered to a jittery nation on a transformed political landscape.
Security now is the dominant theme in a contest that was supposed to be about Britain’s exit from the European Union, with the main parties battling over which can keep Britain safer.
History suggests the tragedy should further bolster May. Violent attacks usually produce a “rally-round-the-flag effect” that boosts support for government and state institutions, Manchester University political science professor Rob Ford said.
While campaigning was suspended, May remained highly visible in her role as head of government, making several televised statements that were praised as somber and steadying.
Yet the pause also seems to have solidified concerns about the lacklustre campaign May was running before the suicide bombing at Manchester Arena. Polls which had given the prime minister’s Tories as much as a 20-point lead over the left-leaning Labour Party have narrowed into the single figures.
The Guardian newspaper noted Conservative confidence has been replaced by “the palpable sense of a Tory wobble”.
May is an unelected and relatively untested prime minister. The Conservative Party picked her to replace Prime Minister David Cameron after his unexpected resignation in the wake of Britain’s vote last June to leave the EU. May called an early election in a bid to increase her parliamentary majority and strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations.
It seemed a low-risk gamble. Polls suggested voters regarded May as a stronger leader than Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, an old-fashioned socialist. Many Labour members harbour concerns about Corbyn, and the Conservatives were confident voters would reject seemingly outmoded Labour promises such as raising taxes on the wealthy and re-nationalising industries.
But from the start, May was accused of running a tightly-controlled and uninspiring campaign. She made speeches to hand-picked audiences and batted away awkward questions by falling back on her oft-repeated slogan “strong and stable government”.
May also made several unforced errors. She said she would give parliament a vote on reversing the ban on fox hunting — a statement that reinforced the Conservatives’ status in many minds as the party of the wealthy.
Then the party proposed changing the way pensioners pay for long-term care — a policy the opposition quickly labelled as a “dementia tax”. The proposal alarmed many of the older people who form the bedrock of Conservative support. May was forced to make an embarrassing partial reversal.
“Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable’ has proven to be an albatross around her neck,” said Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at Nottingham University. “It’s something that people now contrast with the reality, rather than showing the reality.”
Labour, meanwhile, has outperformed expectations. Its focus on pouring more money into education and Britain’s overstretched national health service has resonated with many voters. Corbyn — like May, often an uninspiring public performer — has stood his ground and avoided missteps.
“People expected the Labour campaign to fall apart, and it hasn’t happened,” Fielding said.
With less than two weeks until polling day on June 8, the heightened focus on security has risks for both parties.
Authorities have acknowledged that British-born suicide bomber Salman Abedi was peripherally on the security services’ radar, so voters could blame the Conservative government for failing to prevent the attack.
Labour has criticised the cuts to police budgets May made while she was home secretary between 2010 and 2016, a period that saw the number of police officers across the country fall by almost 20,000.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, have ramped up accusations that Corbyn would weaken Britain’s defences. They have repeatedly underscored his opposition to Britain’s nuclear weapons and appearances alongside Irish republicans, even in the years when the IRA was setting off bombs in Britain.
In a speech on Friday, Corbyn argued that British foreign policy had helped fuel terrorism. He said intelligence and security experts “have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home”.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said Corbyn’s comment amounted to justifying terrorism, and argued Sunday that Britain would be “less safe if Jeremy Corbyn was prime minister”.
Political commentators say such intense verbal assaults show the Conservatives are worried.
In Sunday’s Observer newspaper, columnist Andrew Rawnsley said a campaign organised around the projection of May as “the Supreme Leader” had backfired by exposing her flaws.
“She is still on course to win, but it will not be the unvarnished victory that she was looking for when she began this campaign,” he wrote.