General Election 2017: Sorry, but austerity did not lose Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May her majority

Julian Harris
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The Prime Minister is struggling to stay in Downing Street after losing her majority (Source: Getty)

Polling companies have, by and large, been humiliated by last week’s shock General Election result. Yet while most of the sector’s faces are blushed, the odd one or two still carry a wry smile.

Wonks at YouGov, for example, can afford themselves a pat on the back after their widely-mocked prediction of a hung parliament turned out to be bang on the money.

So what went wrong for Theresa May’s Conservatives? Among 46.8m voters across 650 constituencies in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there are a range of fascinating trends that point to numerous factors behind this historic turnaround.

Such complexity is inconvenient in political circles, however, where people demand quick and simple answers – and typically answers that support their existing biases. Thus, it is little surprise to find certain commentators and politicians coming together to blame the Tory demise on their favourite bugbear: austerity.

Voters snapped after seven years of fiscal tightening, so the argument goes, hence rushing to vote for a Labour leader who had pledged not so much to loosen the purse strings as to turn the whole thing inside out and hurl the contents at all and sundry.

Read more: Government deficit rises faster than expected in April

There is one big problem with this theory. Let us return to YouGov. The pollster’s exceptionally accurate surveys, which ended up within a whisker of the final result, painted a very different picture just a few weeks earlier. In mid-May YouGov had the Tories on track for around 360 seats, with Labour below 220. The gap then began to narrow, especially once the Tory manifesto was published on 18 May.

Are we to believe that after six years and 11 months of Conservative control at the Treasury, voters were content enough to return the Tories with a big parliamentary majority, only for them to radically turn against the concept of austerity in the final three weeks leading up to polling day?

Read more: Government debt addiction means you can be sure of one thing: Stealth taxes will rise

Clearly there were other factors at play. The botched social care plan ("dementia tax") and subsequent U-turn shattered the PM's public image as a safe pair of hands. And now, in hindsight, we can see that a large number of Remainers abandoned the Tories, suggesting that May's approach to Brexit was deemed too harsh.

A poorly-constructed manifesto, an achingly dull campaign, discomfort with May’s increasingly confrontational tone around Brexit talks, and a resurgent Jeremy Corbyn; these are all feasible causes behind the steady elimination of the PM’s projected majority in the run-up to 8 June. They all correlate with the polling data. Even then, the picture is unlikely to be so simple – but beware anyone who claims to have an even blunter explanation.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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