James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
I wrote last week in this column that the Conservatives’ primary election opponent is apathy borne of a sense of inevitability. With victory expected, they’ll be worried how they’ll get people out on election day. It’s for this reason I expressed concern the possibility of ruling out a commitment not to raise taxes might dampen much-needed enthusiasm.
While apathy and inevitability are the biggest worries, the media are bound to ensure a more competitive race on a daily basis, even if the Toriws end up smashing Labour. The Conservatives won’t get a free ride. So, what are their other potential vulnerabilities, and how might they deal with them?
The developing row between Number Ten and the EU’s chief negotiators is a potential vulnerability but also the opportunity the Conservatives have been waiting for. If EU officials – backed by powerful politicians from member states – keep arguing Britain’s negotiating stance is unrealistic, it’s possible questions will be raised about May’s diplomatic abilities and about the merits of hard Brexit. The Liberal Democrats, pro-EU ultras such as Tony Blair and media outlets like the Financial Times will drive this narrative hard.
May must deal with EU officials later and can’t be pointlessly belligerent. However, if Juncker keeps behaving like he has, he’ll strengthen May’s call for a large majority for Brexit talks. She’ll have the opportunity to display a commitment to fairness and a willingness to be firm on behalf of Britain. It offers the Government a rare opportunity to tap into voter irritation to get them out to vote.
If Europe is the most dangerous issue after apathy / inevitability, the NHS must be next. It’s the top issue for voters behind Europe and one of the few where Labour usually leads. It’s not going to lose the election for the Conservatives, but could cause some headaches, particularly at a local level. Labour’s calls for higher wages for NHS staff is misplaced, but they would cause problems for the Conservatives if they pledged greater resources for GP surgeries and A&E Departments – and liberal immigration laws for health workers.
Last time around, David Cameron played the NHS well, endlessly making the point only a strong economy could guarantee a strong NHS. There have probably been too many negative stories for the Conservatives to play the same game. They might need to work on a new policy for the NHS that, for example, radically prioritises some NHS spending – like on A&E – over other aspects of spending – like non-essential prescriptions.
Another vulnerability lies in the Government’s general policy choices – with grammar schools being the obvious issue. Why spend money on grammars, rather than worrying about general school overcrowding? But why also spend money on Trident instead of on the Navy’s conventional fleet? And why HS2 instead of better regional railways? It would be easy for a vaguely competent Labour Party to ask why the Conservatives are spending money on what could be called vanity projects, instead of policies that might do some good (not that I agree with this point – but many would). There are few options but for the Conservatives to dig in on these issues as they have in the past.
Finally, there’s a growing sense of irritation amongst the media that the Prime Minister is too scripted and that she’s robotic on the campaign trail. While there could well be some distracting stories, there’s no sense at all the public are tiring of her. They haven’t seen enough of her to be board – she’s a woman, she’s new, she seems to say what she thinks. At this point in the race, it’s not worth worrying about.