Early Polls Show U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May Leading Ahead Of Election

May 1, 2017
Originally published on May 1, 2017 2:42 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Shakespeare would have had a field day with the political theater playing in Britain right now. The country is heading into an election next month after last summer's surprise vote to leave the European Union. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is dominating the stage. Her Conservative Party has a commanding lead while the opposition Labour Party is floundering. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London on May's improbable rise.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Last June, the usually stable landscape of British politics looked like the final act of "Hamlet." Bodies were strewn everywhere. The first casualty - then-Prime Minister David Cameron who resigned after his failed campaign to stay inside the EU.

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DAVID CAMERON: I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.

LANGFITT: Next to fall was Boris Johnson. The former London mayor was the favorite to become prime minister until his own campaign manager publicly stabbed him in the back Shakespeare-style.

THOMAS RAINES: If you look at - back at that situation, it was a real political shock that Boris Johnson decided to abort his run to be leader of the Conservative Party.

LANGFITT: Thomas Raines is a research fellow with Chatham House, the London think tank.

RAINES: And Theresa May was basically left as the last person standing.

LANGFITT: May wasn't an obvious choice for prime minister. She'd been against leaving the EU and had worked as home secretary, an unglamorous job overseeing issues such as terrorism and migration.

RAINES: She was seen as serious, so - but not charismatic, not necessarily sort of friendly or warm but certainly has a safe pair of hands in that sense.

LANGFITT: Given the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, a safe pair of hands started to look pretty good. May transformed herself into a hardcore Brexiteer (ph), which helped unify her Conservative Party. And Thomas Raines says her decisiveness and self-confidence played well with the public.

RAINES: When people are asked, who do you think would make the most competent prime minister, who do you trust to make decisions on the economy, who do you trust in security issues, she is streets ahead of Jeremy Corbyn, who is the leader of the opposition Labour Party.

LANGFITT: Which is perhaps her greatest advantage heading into June's snap election and why she decided to call it. In Corbyn, she faces an avowed socialist who's even unpopular inside his own party, a point she hammered home during last week's debate in the House of Commons.

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PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: Every vote for him is a vote for a coalition of chaos, a weak leader propped up by the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists. Every vote for me is a vote for strong and stable leadership in the national interest.

LANGFITT: The Tories smell blood, which you could sense in the Commons as Corbyn began to debate May.

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JEREMY CORBYN: Mr. Speaker, when I became the opposition 18 months ago...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Yelling) Nay.

LANGFITT: Corbyn is running on a populist platform focusing on workers struggling with stagnant wages and young people who can't afford a first home.

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CORBYN: The election on the 8th of June is a choice between a...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Yelling) Yay.

CORBYN: Yeah, between a Conservative government for the few and a Labour government that will stand up for all of our people.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Yelling) Yay.

LANGFITT: May sees the election as an opportunity to extend her party's narrow margin in Parliament against a weak opposition. Polls published last weekend show the Conservatives anywhere from 11 to 17 points ahead of Labour, a healthy margin that could allow May to put her stamp on her party and boost her political capital as she tries to navigate Britain's high-risk divorce from the European Union. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEXSTATIC'S "CHASE ME - DVD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.