UK election: Theresa May's extraordinary coup

UK Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at the launch of the Conservative Party's Election Manifesto, in Halifax, on May 18, 2017.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at the launch of the Conservative Party's Election Manifesto, in Halifax, on May 18, 2017.

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Story highlights

  • Conservative Party launches manifesto
  • UK election to be held on June 8

(CNN)Theresa May should be having a bad election campaign.

The British Prime Minister who has a tiny majority in Parliament, is embarking on a Brexit process that has divided her party and her country, and has performed u-turns on everything from tax to her decision to call this election.
    She has refused to directly debate her opponent, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, on live television, and is rumored to be engaged in a strategy war with her Treasury chief, Philip Hammond.
    Her one-time rival for the Conservative leadership, George Osborne, is now the editor of a London newspaper from where he takes daily swipes at her agenda, calling her "politically rash" and "economically illiterate".
    And yet May seems unassailable.
    UK Prime Minister Theresa May launches the Conservatives' election manifesto on May 18, 2017.

    'Tight ship'

    There is not a squeak of public disloyalty from her own politicians, and -- unlike her counterpart in the White House -- her chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill run a tight ship in Downing Street, where no one dares leak against her.
    Her manifesto -- a political party's guide to its key policies -- contains plenty of controversial measures that will take money away from the middle classes, including wealthier pensioners and children, and leaves the door open to tax rises, an agenda that would normally incur the wrath of the Daily Mail, the popular newspaper that fiercely protects "Middle England".
    British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to workers at a distribution center in Stoke-on-Trent.
    But May's plans for the elderly, which include taking money from their estates after death to pay for their care, and removing £200 a year handouts to pay for fuel bills from all but the poorest pensioners, were given the gentlest of coverage.
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    Her party has been polling consistently around 20 points ahead of Labour, and she is on course for a landslide victory on June 8. May has pulled off an extraordinary coup.
    Key to her success is message discipline. The Prime Minister has repeated the phrase "strong and stable" dozens of times over the past few weeks, and there is evidence it is cutting through.
    Some 15% of voters polled by YouGov earlier this month volunteered the slogan without prompting -- a pretty high figure for a largely politically disengaged electorate. May has barely mentioned Brexit during this campaign, despite it being the biggest issue facing the UK and the basis for why she called the election.

    'Strong and stable'

    Instead, her focus has been on comparing her "strong and stable" leadership to a "coalition of chaos" under Labour.
    UK Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at the launch of the Conservative Party's Election Manifesto.
    Brexit has not yet posed a problem for May's government because it has not yet happened. Two thirds of people are now either in favor of Brexit or are resigned to it -- she has effectively neutralized the issue, for now. She has won over voters who once backed the anti-EU party UK Independence Party by sticking to the Conservative promise to limit immigration to less than 100,000.
    The manifesto is full of pledges for working class Labour voters, including diverting money from middle class pensioners to poorer ones, and scrapping free school lunches for middle class children and spending the money on free breakfasts for poor pupils.
    "Theresa May's current political success appears to be driven by two factors: she has a clear message and she knows her audience," Keiran Pedley, research director of GfK, said.
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    "In our latest survey, her approval rating is 49% (up 3 points since March) with just 33% saying they disapprove. This approval rating is driven by strong ratings among Leave voters (65%) and sky-high ratings among Conservative voters (90%). She knows where her political bread is buttered and is mercilessly playing to those people. Will this success last? Time will tell."
    And this is the key question: how long will her success last? Up until election day on June 8, she has been able to blame any difficulty with Brexit on her legacy from David Cameron.
    When Hammond, her Treasury minister, u-turned on a tax rise in the Budget earlier this year, the government could pin it on the Tory 2015 manifesto which pledged there would be no tax hikes.
    PM Theresa May is confronted by a woman about cuts to her disability benefits during an election campaign walkabout.

    'Landslide'

    On the morning of June 9, if, as the polls suggest, she wins a landslide, she will have a mandate to do what she wants. But power is a double-edged sword. With that mandate comes ownership, and she will have to own every failure -- crucially, if Brexit plunges Britain into economic gloom.
    Her strong polling position is as much to do with the weakness of Corbyn, one of the most unpopular leaders the Labour party has had. If Labour select a formidable and electorally credible successor, everything could change
    Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn addresses the crowd at a campaign rally after launching his election manifesto.
    For now, she is indeed unassailable. But the word "unassailable" is freighted with symbolism in the Conservative Party. Margaret Thatcher described her Treasury chief Nigel Lawson as "unassailable" -- days before she sacked him.