On Monday, Theresa May’s campaign battlebus was in Bradford, where the Tories have not won a seat for the best part of half a century. Yesterday, with ConservativeHome aboard, it was rolling on towards Stoke, where the Party has not gained one in modern times. Doesn’t this tell us that the Prime Minister is confident of winning big on Thursday, as the bus rolls deep into Labour’s heartlands?
Clad in a battleship-grey trouser suit – complete with plunging neckline, matched by a chunky necklace – May looks ready to sink the Bismarck. Only her right hand, clutching over the wrist of her left, indicates any nerves. But she is not going to have her campaign plan second-guessed. Back she comes. “I never predict election results, Paul: as you know, I’ve been been in politics for quite a long time, and i’ve made that a golden rule.”
None the less, recitation of her election formula does not altogether mask her campaigning intent. She needs to win, she says, to make Brexit work. “Every vote for me and my team will strengthen my hand in the negotiation, and I have also been saying that this election’s not just about who people voted for in the past: it’s about who they want to see taking this country forward in the future.
That’s the Prime Minister for you. Every now and then, she makes a deliberate leap, like a praying mantis targeting its victim. She suddenly walks to a Downing Street lectern, say, to announce an election, in order to finish off Jeremy Corbyn (or try to). Or she does it again, only a little while later – to accuse Jean-Claude Juncker of interfering in the campaign.
But for much of the rest of the time she drops into defence mode, taking refuge in a kind of code – even more, perhaps, than most politicians. “Who people voted for in the past” means “people who voted Labour or UKIP last time”. That’s the name of the game – and why the battlebus has spent so much of time outside the Tory greater South-East, in Don Valley and Penistone & Stockbridge and Hemsworth, deep in Labour’s northen fastnesses.
May is keen, of course, to make her pitch. “There is a very clear choice on Thursday – only one of two people will be Prime Minister on Friday: either me or Jeremy Corbyn.” And she is ready with her attack line of the day. “They said they won’t not put up taxes on ordinary working families, but if you look at fine print of their manifesto they’ll take out the married couples allowances – so he has broken his promise on tax.”
Far be it from this site to stop her carrying, but we some some questions on terror and extremism. Has she ruled out interning suspects? The Prime Minister rattles off the list of powers that the Government can deploy – prosecutions, TPIMS, travel bans. ConHome puts it to her that the courts have a long record of clipping the wings of governments that seek to detain people without charge.
“You’re right that the courts were knocking down control orders,” she say, “so we had to do something about that and we introduced the TPIMs, and we subsequently put extra powers into them. What we need to do now is to ensure that do have the powers to do what its necessary to protect the public.” (She told the Sun yesterday that she was prepared to change human rights laws if necessary to toughen up deportation rules.)
This looks like a departure from the Conservative manifesto, by the way, which says that “we will not repeal or replace the Human Rights Act while the process of Brexit is under way”. But isn’t the key point that if May believes human rights laws are impeding the struggle against terror, Britain must leave the ECHR? And on that there is no movement at all.
“I’ve made my views about the ECHR clear in the past, but I believe that at this point in time what we need to do is look at what powers we need and what else we can do.” Why? “Because we’re going to go through a huge period of change over the next five years.” This seems to be an indication that in particular she doesn’t want to complicate the implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland: the ECHR is intertwined with the Belfast Agreement.
Moving out from terrorism to extremism more broadly, haven’t we heard pledges to tackle it before, which came to nothing? Didn’t David Cameron’s last Queen’s Speech promise a bill, which was junked because government couldn’t agree a definition? May’s candour in admitting the problems is perhaps surprising, given her commitment after the London atrocity to be “far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out across society”.
“There is an issue about defining extremism, and we’ve seen it elsewhere, where the great difficulty is not inadvertently catching activity that common sense tells you is not extremist, but which might be argued otherwise if the matter comes before a court”. It is not clear where this leaves the plan she announced last week, or the manifesto pledges “to identify examples of extremism and oppose them” through a new commission.
On to the campaign itself. While it has had a message for the nation as a whole, hasn’t it failed to find one that has cut through for voters and their families? What is the “retail offer”? The Prime Minister replies that “the manifesto is not just a mix of things that will happen in government, but a way of identifying the big challenges and setting out ways of addressing them”.
This seems to confirm the point. So if she had to identify three key elements of the retail offer, what would these be? May comes back with “policies that people haven’t focused on” – or, as she puts it with a hint of ice, policies that have been “overlooked in the commentary on the campaign”. She cites making Britain the safest country in the world for people online, tackling mental health, and a national insurance holiday for firm employing veterans.
These are arguably more a part of the Prime Minister’s social reform programme than an offer to the mass of voters. At any rate, May is clear that, for her, Brexit is a means to an end, not just an end in itself: “I want Britain to be a county where everyone has an opportunity to get on on the basis of their talent and hard work, rather than because of their background or where they come from”.
Talking of Brexit, is she committed to taking Britain out of ECJ jurisdiction? “That is what people voted for, and that’s what we want to achieve now,” she says, before raising the issue of what body might police an EU-UK trade deal. But her conclusion is unambiguous: “we’re coming out of the ECJ – I’ve said this on a number of occasions. One of the things people wanted in the referendum was to ensure that the laws are made here, not by the ECJ”.
The Prime Minister learned her public service values growing up in her father’s vicarage. He was an Anglo-Catholic, and she describes herself as being “of that tradition – the higher end tradition of the Church of England”. But her focus in this election is as much abroad as at home. “The question is: who do the British people believe has the real determination to get the best deal for Britain – and deliver on Brexit?”