Theresa May has squandered an apparently unassailable lead

For all the excitement about the opinion polls, and a chaotic campaign, the Conservatives retain what by any historical standard is still a commanding lead

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The Independent Online

Though much over-quoted, this seems an entirely appropriate juncture in the British general election of 2017 to recall Harold Wilson's famous remark that a week is a long time in politics. Not much more than a week ago Theresa May was being compared to Margaret Thatcher, such was her apparent invincibility. So far, largely through her own unforced errors of judgement, the Prime Minister has, misstep by misstep, squandered a substantial and apparently unassailable lead.

Jeremy Corbyn, if only by exceeding dismally low expectations, has surprised if not delighted the nation. He has what Americans call the Big Mo. His fans talk of a Trump-style insurgency, and the possibility of what he terms transformational change. His rise is improbable but no fantasy. Last night with his decision to pile into a multiparty debate he has shown undeniable courage, and acquitted himself well.

That is not to endorse a badly flawed Labour policy programme – but it is simply to give some credit to him for enlivening a dull election. Theresa May lost an opportunity to regain the initiative, though she avoided the risk of another blunder. Will another week and further exposure of the Labour leader to the public lead to one of biggest upsets in British political history? 

No longer can it be ruled out, but it remains unlikely. For all the excitement about the opinion polls, and a chaotic campaign, the Conservatives retain what by any historical standard is still a commanding lead. The focus on the lead and its reduction in recent weeks has to a degree obscured that fundamental fact of this election. 

The question now forming is not so much if there will be a Conservative government on 9 June, but whether it is Ms May who will lead it, and, for that matter, the Brexit negotiations. A majority that is not much bigger or even smaller than the one David Cameron achieved two years ago will represent a catastrophic failure. She will not survive that, and will make all the cant about strong and stable leadership look sick indeed.

We will be in the odd position of giving our unelected Prime Minister a mandate so weak that she will be unable to enjoy it. Inevitably there will emerge another Tory Prime Minister the nation did not choose. Maybe yet another election could follow. Chaos and instability indeed.

Not so long ago it seemed that the Prime Minister could look forward to a regal procession to the biggest government majority since 1931. In a comparatively short time that had evaporated and the campaign has come alive, not least thanks to the resilient qualities of the leader of the opposition. Thirty years in the political wilderness wasn't wasted, then. 

This election was unnecessary and ill judged. The Prime Minister told us it was about Brexit, and the public told her it wasn't just about that. She asked for a large majority and the voters have decided not to gift her a landslide and quasi dictatorial powers. They will not take Brexit on trust. The campaign was always Ms May's for the losing and, with the assault on pensioners, the dementia tax and an alarming aversion to public contact, she has come far too close to losing it for her party's comfort. For her, much more than for the leader of the opposition, the next seven days will be long and hard indeed.