Even the Conservatives' loyal supporters, of which I am one, would be hard pressed to deny that the party has had a difficult campaign thus far.
There are plenty of possible reasons for this: Theresa May’s poor performance on the stump; the lack of road-testing for particular policies such as the social care reforms, and Labour’s unexpectedly coherent campaign.
Nonetheless, with less than a week to go before polling day, it still seems clear that only one party in this election is properly prepared to face up to some of the biggest challenges facing our country: Brexit, the threat of separatism, and inter-generational justice.
To start with the most obvious one, this election was called in large part to give the Government a secure majority during our negotiations with Brussels over leaving the EU. A working majority of about 16, which the Government enjoyed before dissolution, meant that it took fewer than 10 rebellious Tories to potentially hold the Government to ransom.
Making sure that we get these talks right – securing the best deal possible whilst making the most of the new opportunities opened up by Brexit – is possibly the single most serious foreign policy challenge faced by any British government since the Suez Crisis. It’s knock-on effect on the future of the country will be felt for decades.
Sceptics may mock the Prime Minister’s ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mantra, but we nonetheless have a fairly good idea of what the Conservative plan involves: restoring border control, ending the jurisdiction of foreign courts, potentially buying into European programmes on a case-by-case basis, and being free to negotiate trade agreements with the rest of the world. The Tories have also, against expectations, managed to just about unite around this position.
In contrast, Labour is deeply split on Europe. Even if Jeremy Corbyn is a Leaver, it is unthinkable that his party would give him leeway on the issue. A very divided and very Europhile party is not going to get the best deal from Brussels – and could walk away with a very bad set of terms indeed.
Corbyn has also failed to show determined opposition to those forces which want to break up our country. His long-standing sympathies with extreme Irish nationalism are a common feature of the far-left world he has inhabited since the 1970s, but he’s also said that he’s relaxed about the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum – even as his Scottish party is desperately trying to woo unionist tactical votes to win seats back from the SNP.
With Scotland and Northern Ireland both having voted Remain last year, and the devolved governments fighting over the powers due to be repatriated from Brussels, a strong government with a clear pro-UK agenda is as important as it was in 2014. The Conservatives have made good ground in taking the fight to Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Nationalists, and look set to win a clutch of Scottish seats in June – directly involving Scots in the business of Government in a way that Labour, with just one Scottish seat, can’t do.
Northern Ireland is particularly sensitive, as Sinn Fein has collapsed the devolved assembly after March’s snap elections. Only this week the Prime Minister set out a firm policy on Ulster which will limit the possible gains for the Irish Republicans of undermining devolution, which may help to bring them back to the table.
If Corbyn were in Number 10, on the other hand, Sinn Fein strategists would have every reason to expect sympathetic, even indulgent treatment from the British Government, whilst Unionists would fear the worst. This would be a recipe for even deeper political instability in a province whose settlement is still relatively fragile.
Finally, Labour have no good answers on generational justice. May’s social care policy may have been launched very badly, but it was at least an attempt to begin addressing the unavoidable truth: that we are currently set to spend far more on our old people than the next generation can afford to sustain.
With older voters much more likely to turn out, and traditionally leaning Conservative, progress on these issues is slow – and is slowed further by the Opposition opportunistically branding it a ‘dementia tax’. But unless we face up to the structural problems with our welfare state in time to address them properly, not only do young people face a harsh squeeze on their future incomes to fund public services they won’t receive, but old people risk a sharp fall in their own entitlements anyway.
Labour may have managed to enthuse young voters at this election – and the polls showing them close behind assume they have – by promising to abolish tuition fees and possibly write off the £30 billion in outstanding student debt. But their programme isn’t actually great for young people.
For example, at the moment tuition fees are only paid back by better-off graduates, so Labour’s abolish-fees-and-forgive-debt plan is actually a regressive boost to the better-paid. Without fees there will also be pressure on universities to cut places, which in Scotland has actually led to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds being squeezed out as institutions prioritised fee-paying international students.
Meanwhile Labour have pledged to protect old-age entitlements – thus storing up a world of pain for today’s young throughout their working life – and pledged a tax-and-spending plan which the Resolution Foundation claims hits Millenials harder than the Tories’ proposals.
On the other hand, the Conservatives have offered two important education reforms which really will help young people.
First, they will lift the ban on new grammar schools, allowing the expansion of academically selective institutions which have historically proven a ladder for bright pupils from working-class backgrounds. This effect has been reduced in recent decades because such schools have been increasingly confined to comfortable Tory areas, and fierce competition for places has favoured parents who can splash out on tutors. By opening up supply the Government will bring this boon of the middle classes to communities across the country.
Of course there were big problems with the education system of which grammars were part, namely that the other schools were neglected. This time the Tories are promising substantial reform to technical education, which will finally put it on an even footing with the academic alternative.
Thousands of confusing and often badly designed technical qualifications will be boiled down into new ‘T Levels’, which will guarantee plenty of teaching hours and clear paths into employment. Apprenticeships and in-work training will also be boosted. Such policies will have a transformative impact on the prospects of many pupils being let down by our current system because they can’t access a school, academic or technical, which caters to their needs and strengths, as well as training up the workers the post-Brexit economy will need.
Beneath the sound and fury of the campaign, the Conservatives have offered a programme aimed squarely and practically at building a better future: a good Brexit deal, a united Britain, sustainable public services, and a fair deal and proper training for the next generation. No matter how shambolic their campaign, it’s far worthier of your vote than Labour’s programme of nostalgic nationalisations and unsustainable giveaways.