Why Theresa May was right to call an election

Now the dust has settled on the election result (if not its consequences), it might be worth re-visiting the question about whether May calling the election was the right call or a huge misjudgement. The consensus seems to be for the latter. A consensus I would like to challenge.

When I had a little time working in the field of decision analysis, one of the oft cited statements is that most people tend to judge the wisdom of a decision by its eventual outcome. So it is with Theresa May. The election turned out to be a disaster so it was the wrong decision. But decision science makes clear that a decision cannot be judged by its outcome since that was unknown and unknowable at the time the decision was made. Rather, a decision should be judged by whether it was the correct course of action to take given what was known at the time the decision was made. On this the Prime Minister scores highly.

When she called the election, polls indicated that she was 20 points ahead. Labour was in disarray. Jeremy Corbyn’s ratings were underwater. With Brexit, the government was approaching what was arguably the most difficult period any UK government has faced since the war. And that had to be steered through with a wafer thin majority. The surprise would have been had Theresa May not called an election in such circumstances.

Nobody was to know, or even imagine, that the Tories would run one of their worst campaigns in history; that the manifesto launch would be botched and subject to instant U-turns; that the Prime Minister herself would turn out to be an awful campaigner; and that Corbyn would manage to connect with a vast swathe of the electorate in a way that overcame internal party divisions. Of all that came to pass, only this last could possible have been predicted. After all, Corbyn achieved the same feat in the Labour leadership election.

It is not currently fashionable to say a word in favour of the Prime Minister. But on calling the election she was right.

And this is a lesson that we should take when we judge all decisions – political, business or personal. Outcomes are unknowable. They are subject to being buffeted by events. But the best thing we can all do is to make judgements on the basis of what we know and feel at the time. We all have 20/20 vision looking backwards. But what did it look like at the time decisions were made?

Do you want to read more about the system change debate?
Sign up to get email notifications about anything new in this blog.

Rate this post!

Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Mark Wooding says

    It is an interesting hypothesis. Isn’t it also the case that making a good assessment of a situation, and any decision that might flow from it, should be measured against the reliability of the data used to make the decision. Perhaps better ‘market intelligence’ might have indicated that the lead the Conservatives enjoyed and the public perception of Corbyn were not all they seemed on the face of things. I myself was very sceptical of the YouGov polling, albeit it proved prescient, and it is interesting to speculate as to what their polling methodology might have shown at the point May was taking her fateful decision. May might be given the benefit of the doubt on the data available to her, but surely Conservative HQ are culpable for the weakness of their data set?

    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says

      Thanks Mark. You are right that the quality of data is vital. However, people can only make decisions on the basis of the best available data at the time. We all understand the weaknesses of polling data but we have nothing better – so far. When most data are showing a 20 point lead and it fits with the general narrative and perception that Corbyn was ‘unelectable’ then it’s not unreasonable to make decisions on that basis. Even if the polling data was off by something like a massive 25%, it would still tend to drive towards the same decision. In my opinion, the issue was not the data but rather the total failure of the Conservative campaign and the relative success of the Labour campaign. Neither of those were predictable at the time the decision was made. It’s not reasonable to expect a pre-campaign conversation at CCHQ along the lines of “What if we totally screw up our campaign, we find out that our leader is an utterly hopeless campaigner, and Corbyn emerges as a hero figure?”

Leave a Reply

The Author
Latest Related Work
Follow Us