There are two logical explanations for this. The first is the poor quality of Labour’s opposition on the biggest issue of the day. It is hard for the leading opposition party to criticise the government for having no fixed position on Brexit when it is so desperately muddled about its own stance.
The second explanation is that it is the economy that determines what most people think. Whenever May has come under attack from Corbyn she has repeated the same mantra again and again. She throws back at him the economic data on unemployment and claims that her government knows how to manage an economy and he doesn’t.
This accusation has been made easier for May because of the sheer number of Corbyn’s naïve statements on the economy such as his past enthusiasm for the magnificent example of Venezuelan socialist economics. Those few of us on the left who refused to believe that a command economy built on oil revenues could possibly be a sustainable model to copy have now been proved right in spades. Corbyn simply doesn’t understand why the economic disaster in Venezuela happened and has to blame it all on US sanctions instead of bad internal policies.
But things could be changing. There are signs that May is now becoming every bit as vulnerable on the economy as she is on political unity. If the indicators keep turning against her it is going to become very difficult for her to sustain the narrative that she, and she alone, can steer us wisely through the choppy economic waters of Brexit and provide us with stability.
The negatives are now stacking up. Unemployment has begun to rise even at the top of the economic cycle. Inflation has returned and is sitting stubbornly at 3% whilst wages have only just struggled up to 2.5%. This means that the typical person has had a 0.5% pay cut. Yet again. The average worker is still taking home less income than they were in 2008 when the deregulated private sector banking crash began the era of austerity. Growth in the economy is now at historic lows of around 1.5%. It is also below the EU average and on a downward trend not an upward one. The stock market and property asset price bubble look like they have peaked because the era of central banks printing free money and pumping it into those markets has come to an end in the US and the UK. Interest rates are on the rise. Then there is the small problem that after almost ten years of austerity politics and with very low rates of unemployment the government of the UK still can’t balance its books and is paying out more than it earns. All that is hitting the economy at a time when we are just about the enter the period of most significant uncertainty about Brexit. Oh, and to cap it all, the balance of payments between what the UK sells abroad in all forms and what it buys remains horribly negative despite a significant fall in our currency.
As always economics is complex and there are forces operating in both directions. The huge deficit budget gamble that Trump has just launched and the rapid rate of worldwide economic growth are both likely to exercise a heavily positive short-term impact on the global economy that must also impact on Britain. Until the next recession strikes.
Nevertheless, it is entirely probable that one of the main weapons in May’s armoury is about to be turned against her. How will she explain it if unemployment continues to rise, real wages decline further, and growth disappears? What will she say to the electorate if a jobs last Brexit starts to be a reality instead of something that can be dismissed as an exaggerated threat?
Economics impact on ordinary people’s day to day lives in a way that politics don’t tend to. The vast majority of people don’t really care that much about things like Brexit one way or the other. The commonest attitude I come across from non-political friends is that they are thoroughly bored with the whole thing and just want whatever is going to happen to take place quietly and efficiently.
That is why the economics of the next year are so important. If everything chugs along without too much disruption of every day life then the polls will continue to show a surprisingly high level of support for May’s government. If the economy continues to slow up and the impact of Brexit indecision and political instability really starts to bite then her support will evaporate very quickly.
Few politicians can command positive support at the moment. Corbyn is one of them as, unfortunately, is Farage. What May enjoys at the moment is a high level of passive support from people who are hoping that it is all going to turn out OK and that she might just be able to steer us through all this Brexit stuff without too much disruption.
That passive support is remarkably fragile. All it requires is for the UK economy to continue to worsen and that support will fall away rapidly. A worsening economy is, of course, not something anyone would wish for. But it is looking increasingly likely. Life could very well be about to get even harder for May’s confused and divided government of none of the talents.