THERE’S nothing the media likes more in an election than a gaffe. It enables them to feel superior to the politicians. They love it when Diane Abbott gets her figures wrong or walks into the scenery at the Police Federation conference. Or Len McCluskey falls down stairs as he leaves the Labour Party manifesto meeting. Such scenes, journalists intuit, are symbolically subversive.
David Miliband with a banana, Neil Kinnock falling in the sea, Michael Foot in a donkey jacket at the Cenotaph. These twerps lack judgement: that’s the subliminal message. It later emerged that Mr Foot was not playing a Hampstead intellectual aping the working classes: he was wearing an expensive coat that was untraditionally short. But dirt sticks.
Yet sometimes the target is sticky, too. Ms Abbott’s record of blunders suggest that she is sloppy, lazy, and intellectually incoherent. The idea that she could be Home Secretary is as frightening as the thought that Boris Johnson heads the Foreign Office.
In real life, when the facts change, we change our minds. In politics, by contrast, the U-turn is routinely excoriated as a sign of weakness. Yet sometimes it really is. Theresa May’s about-face on her manifesto centrepiece — to get old people to pay a greater share of the costs if they need care — was dropped like a hot brick after critics dubbed it “the dementia tax” and homeowners saw it as the theft of their children’s inheritance. It wasn’t just a spectacular hand-brake turn, veteran commentators said: it was the first time that a manifesto promise was broken before rather than after an election.
Strong and stable suddenly looked weak and wobbly. It drew attention to Mrs May’s previous nine policy reversals — including workers on boards, Hinkley Point, increasing national insurance for the self-employed, and insisting six times that there would be no election before 2020. Nigel Farage declared her “a weathercock who believes in very little”.
The Manchester bomb would save her from that, many privately said. She would look safe and solid on security. When Jeremy Corbyn suggested, post-Manchester, that British foreign policy added to the motivations of jihadis, it was declared by Tories to be an own goal. But then it was pointed out that a former Conservative prime minister had said the same thing — as had the present Foreign Secretary and a former head of MI5. Many decided that Mr Corbyn was speaking an inescapable truth (though not the whole truth; the hapless Yazidis had no foreign policy but were murdered all the same).
There is much else. But Mr Corbyn’s expectations — once so low, after being disowned by a majority of his own MPs — have dramatically improved. Mrs May’s strongest claim — that she will handle Brexit negotiations better — has taken such a knock that, during a television interview with the Prime Minister on Monday night, Jeremy Paxman said that Brussels negotiators would see her as “a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire”. Members of his audience heckled her. Press-conference journalists have openly laughed at her.
Mr Corbyn, by contrast, who was also interviewed by Mr Paxman, was generally deemed to have outperformed her — despite being interrupted by Mr Paxman 54 times, as against six with Mrs May.
Mr Corbyn probably still won’t win. But Mrs May could lose, by not winning well enough.