Election notebook #8: May oui; la Liberal diffusion; & Macron’s cheers

by Stephen Tall on May 8, 2017

Other than finding out I’d finished last in the seat I was standing in, I did notice a handful of other things about the local elections while on holiday…

Obviously it was the Conservatives who had the best night of it, by far. Their 39% projected share of the vote would convert into a healthy-enough 48 seat majority if repeated on 8th June. But they’ll easily do better than that when national issues are to the fore. The last 10 polls have them between 44-48%.

A little over two years ago, ratings like that would have seemed impossible. The Tory brand was still toxic to many: to progressive moderates, who disliked the glee with which George Osborne embraced austerity; and to hard-right nationalists, who despised David Cameron’s weak attempts to find an accommodation between his party and Europe.

Brexit has changed all that. What was once reckoned to be an extremist position obsessively held by an ill-assorted mix of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” turned out to be the will of the majority. The mainstream has shifted. Leaving the EU is a question of how, not if. This was something Theresa May quickly grasped: her tilt from lukewarm Remainer to ardent Brexiteer has captured a mood — ‘If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well. It were done quickly’ — egged on by our xenophobic press.

It’s earned her a hearing. And she’s used that chance brilliantly, adroitly interleaving her own fortunes with those of Britain: a vote for Theresa is a vote for a better Brexit. No party has yet worked out how to respond to that pitch; I’m not sure it’s possible, not this side of the reality hitting home. Theresa’s real test isn’t this election, it’s what’ll come after. When she tries to reconcile the fantastical promises made by the Leavers with the realisation of quite what a bumpy ride we’ve let ourselves in for.

**

For the Lib Dems, it was a night of frustration. The party’s vote share, at 18%, was the highest since the Coalition was formed; but with the Tories snaffling most of Ukip’s vote, hopes of momentum-inspiring gains melted away. In the end, we made a net loss of 42 councillors. It’s all-too-easy to see this pattern repeating itself in a month’s time: vote share up, seats down.

True, we topped the polls in Cheltenham, St Albans, Cambridge, North East Fife, Cardiff Central, Bath, Edinburgh West, Eastleigh, Oxford West & Abingdon, Watford, and Eastbourne. By no means all of those votes, though, will convert straight across from the local to national elections.

We start too far behind. But, more than that, we’ve yet to persuade Conservative Remainers that we’re a punt worth taking; for the moment, they’re standing four-square behind Mrs May. (Labour Remainers we’re having greater success with; but mostly in urban seats where we have little chance of success, at least this time around.) It’s a very traditional third-party problem in a first-past-the-post system: 1-in-5 people might be voting for us again, but that’s not much help if they’re thinly spread.

**

Emmanuel Macron’s landslide win was just the tonic most of us needed after the confirmation the Tories are on course for their own landslide. For sure, it’s worrying that over 10 million people just across the channel are willing to vote for a fascist. But France has a liberal, moderate head of state voted for by over 20 million: je suis ravi.

It’s a truly astounding achievement from a standing start (his party, En Marche!, didn’t even exist 13 months ago). When the French TV series Les Hommes de l’ombre (aka Spin) imagined a third-party candidate standing for the presidency, it was reckoned it would be too unbelievable if she won. President Macron has written a new script.

A tweet from writer Ian Leslie got me pondering last night, ‘Now’s he won can we just admit the way he met his wife is creepy and wrong?’ (She is 25 years his senior and was his drama teacher when they first met, when he was 15.) It’s certainly unusual and therefore something of an object of curiosity. And if the roles were reversed, and it was he who’d been her teacher, I suspect the press (at least in this country: France is notably more permissive) would have been a lot harsher.

However, I’m not inclined to Ian’s judginess on this one. For a start, the relationship has endured for a quarter of a century which must, surely, count in its favour. And secondly, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious power imbalance, which, understandably, is the usual concern in relationships which begin as pupil-teacher. When they married 10 years ago, Mr Macron thanked those who attended the ceremony for accepting them as they are: “That is to say, maybe something not quite common, a couple not quite normal – not that I like this adjective very much – but a couple that exists.”

C’est la vie.