A CLOSING gap in the polls, a strong reaction to Theresa May’s social care U-turn and an impressive TV performance by Jeremy Corbyn have injected some unexpected drama into what looked like a pretty dull election campaign.
The Tories started out with a 24-point lead over Labour in the polls, but several opinion surveys now put Labour just five or six points behind with a week still to go. The key turning points seem to have been publication of Labour’s manifesto with a raft of policies which are both radical and popular – from scrapping tuition fees to nationalising the railways – and the Tories’ volte-face over the ‘dementia tax’, just days after it was presented as a keystone of the party’s programme.
Mrs May and her colleagues have sought to make the election all about leadership, asking who the voters want to be prime minister and lead the Brexit negotiations, then claiming Mr Corbyn is “not up to the job”.
But the Labour leader came out well from Monday night’s TV session which saw a studio audience and then Jeremy Paxman quiz both Mr Corbyn and Mrs May.
Even commentators who normally have little time for Mr Corbyn hailed his performance as “very strong”, “his best” and “a clear win”. Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell said he “did pretty well”.
For all the hectoring from Paxman about his past views on the Falklands, the IRA and the Royal family, Mr Corbyn was calm and confident and gave fluent answers to the audience on their concerns.
Mrs May was forced on to the defensive and suffered the embarrassment of being laughed at by the audience over some of her comments.
The Tories, guided by Australian campaign strategist Lynton Crosby – who must be deeply annoyed at the way things have been going – are now expected to try to turn the focus on to Brexit in the last week before polling day. It’s a topic on which they believe they are strong and Labour is weak.
But if the spotlight is to be turned on it, they might have to come up with a bit more substance than they have provided so far.
And of course parties cannot dictate the agenda as easily as that. There is plenty of scope for all sorts of issues to come up over the next seven days.
Despite the narrowing polls, Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have not changed their script that Mr Corbyn is not a credible prime minister and the Tories are likely to be returned with a bigger majority.
Ms Sturgeon is happy to say she would seek a “progressive alliance” with Labour if there was a hung parliament. But she quickly added: “Let’s get back to the reality of this election . . .”
It would fly in the face of all predictions for Labour actually to win next Thursday, but no one should pre-empt the voters.
The polls suggest the Tories will still win the election, but not by the landslide they hoped for.
If Mrs May ends up with a majority not much different from the one she had before, the election will look pointless and she will be weaker as a result.
She is already being compared to the late Tory prime minister Ted Heath who called an unnecessary snap election in February 1974, hoping to capitalise on public discontent with striking miners, only to be rebuffed by the voters. He was duly forced to quit No 10, never to return.