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3Novices:British PM's party slides into troubled territory

A member of parliament from the UK's Conservative Party has been charged with fraud in his 2015 election campaign expenses - the latest setback for prime minister Theresa May, who appears in sudden danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in next week's general election.

The Crown Prosecution Service announced on Friday that Craig Mackinlay, who hopes to retain his seat in the election on June 8, "falsely" declared expenses. Hotel stays for party workers helping with Mr Mackinlay's campaign were paid for by the national party, rather than by his own restricted budget for local expenses.

A party spokesperson called the charges "unfounded," but with under a week to go before the UK votes, this is yet another headache for Mrs May. In mid-April, when the prime minister surprised her country by calling a snap election, it seemed inevitable that she would win and win big, possibly even closing in on a two-thirds majority in the 650-seat House of Commons.

But in the weeks since - and particularly since the Manchester terror attack on May 22 - the Conservative Party's lead over its rival Labour Party has eroded dramatically and an electoral shock on June 8 now looks possible.

Even a weak win will defeat Mrs May's gamble in calling the election. It will foil her campaign promises - to slash immigration and to boost the National Health Service, among other things - and hamper her ability to seek the kind of hard Brexit deal she desires.

When the election was announced, the Conservatives enjoyed a 24-point lead over Labour, according to the polling agency YouGov. But new results released on Thursday showed only a three-point difference between the parties: with the Conservatives on 42 and Labour on 39.

Nothing illustrated the slide better than a televised debate on Wednesday. Every single party apart from the Conservatives was represented by its leader or their deputy. Mrs May sent home secretary Amber Rudd in her place, a decision that was roundly jeered.

"The first rule of leadership is to show up," said Caroline Lucas, the co-head of the Green Party.

Leanne Wood, leader of the Welsh party Plaid Cymru, said: "[May] won't turn up to these debates because her campaign of sound bites is falling apart."

On Thursday, Ms May tried to arrest the decline with a campaign speech aimed at refocusing attention on Brexit. Negotiations for Britain's departure from the EU are due to begin 11 days after the election and the prime minister admitted the EU were already getting "aggressive." However she would rather walk away from the negotiating table than agree a deal that hurt the UK.

It was that sort of rhetoric, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn responded, that had created "a toxic climate" for negotiations.

Alone among European leaders, Ms May had only a lukewarm response to US president Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. "This is not the type of leadership Britain needs," Mr Corbyn sniffed.

A major factor in the narrowing gap between the two parties can be ascribed to the Conservative manifesto, which includes bringing back fox hunting, abandoning the ban on ivory trade, and the so-called "dementia tax." This was a proposal that would force elderly people with savings and property over £100,000 to pay for their health care - even if it required them to sell their houses to do it. It was dubbed the "dementia tax" because it would particularly affect old people with dementia living at home for many years, as opposed to people with conditions resulting more swiftly in death, such as cancer.

The proposal gave Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, a cutting quip for the television debate.

"Where do you think Theresa May is tonight?" he asked, looking into the camera. "Take a look out of your window. She might be out there, sizing up your house to pay for your social care."

ssubramanian@thenational.ae



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