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Theresa May's Approval Ratings Drop As U.K. Election Race Tightens

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Just a few weeks ago, Britain's ruling Conservative Party looked headed for a landslide victory over its rival, the Labour Party, in upcoming national elections. Well, now there's a twist nobody saw coming. Labour has cut the Conservatives', commonly known as the Tories, lead by more than half in recent polls, and Prime Minister Theresa May is flailing. NPR's Frank Langfitt explains from London.

(APPLAUSE)

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Last month, the Labour Party unveiled its signature campaign poster at a small gathering. Campaign coordinator Ian Lavery hit on the party's populist themes.

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IAN LAVERY: Ordinary people are suffering greatly whilst those at the top are receiving huge tax cuts.

(APPLAUSE)

LANGFITT: But that day, British journalists didn't focus on Labour's message but on the fact that the party's leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was a no-show.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Where's he gone? We were expecting Mr. Corbyn.

LAVERY: He was meant to be here, but that's - things happened, and Mr. Corbyn is dealing with internal (unintelligible).

LANGFITT: Political analysts suspected one of Corbyn's many opponents inside his own party had leaked Labour's electoral platform to sabotage him. The moment seemed just another sign that Labour was heading for its worst defeat since the 1930s and that Theresa May was on a roll. Two weeks earlier, she exuded confidence as she ripped into Corbyn in their final debate in the House of Commons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: Unable to defend our country, determined to raise tax on ordinary workers, no plan to manage our economy - even his own supporters know he's not fit to run this country.

LANGFITT: Today, the race looks completely different. Labour has momentum. It's within eight percentage points of the Tories ahead of Thursday's vote. And earlier this week, Corbyn showed up for a national debate on the BBC...

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JEREMY CORBYN: Our schools are underfunded. Our hospitals are overcrowded. Our students are saddled with debt. There's a growing housing crisis.

LANGFITT: ...While Prime Minister Theresa May didn't show up at all, drawing sharp criticism from voters and rival politicians, such as Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats.

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TIM FARRON: Good leaders don't run away from a debate. Theresa May undoubtedly should be here. Without a - whatever we discussed this evening, her absence is undoubtedly the shadow that hangs over this election. How dare you call a general election then run away from the debate?

LANGFITT: What's gone wrong for the Tories? Political observers say Theresa May took her party's early 20-point lead for granted.

DAVID COWLING: I think the message for her is hubris, hubris, hubris.

LANGFITT: David Cowling's a political researcher at King's College London. May has never run a national campaign before, and Cowling says the inexperience showed.

COWLING: The conservatives arrogantly I think sped towards what they thought was a great victory and hit a brick wall, namely that Mrs. May doesn't do human all that well.

LANGFITT: Uncertainty reigns as the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union, so May responded with her campaign mantra - strong and stable leadership. But she repeated it so often, it became a YouTube mash-up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

MAY: Strong and stable, strong and stable, strong and stable, strong and stable, strong and stable, strong and stable, strong and stable, strong and stable.

LANGFITT: May also drew fire when she proposed that the government clawback health care costs without a cap from the estates of people needing long-term care. Children of Alzheimer's patients worried family homes would be liquidated.

THOMAS RAINES: This was then branded as a dementia tax. Now that's about as bad publicity as you could hope for.

LANGFITT: Thomas Raines is an analyst at Chatham House, the London think tank.

RAINES: This proposal has gone down absolutely horribly amongst the Conservatives' core electorate.

LANGFITT: May was forced to reverse course, although she continues to insist she hasn't. Like most political observers, Raines still thinks the Tories will win but not by the margins May once dreamed of, meaning she could head into crucial Brexit negotiations with the European Union later this month not from the position of strength that she'd planned but from one of relative weakness. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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