The British General Election of 2017 by Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh
We have heard an awful lot from Theresa May in recent days, and it is not clear this will be to her advantage. For although she deserves, and receives, respect for her dogged courage, she also reminds everyone of her limitations, which include a use of language so wooden even her admirers feel their spirits sink as they listen to her.
I cannot be the only person who sometimes switches off one of her performances before the end, because it is too painful to go on hearing such trite, repetitive, tin-eared, well-meaning but inadequate stuff.
The sense grows that she has been miscast, and cannot find the words to sell a Brexit deal which proves on examination to contain various highly contentious answers to some admittedly very difficult questions. Nor does her obstinacy – her propensity, once she has adopted a policy, to cling to it for dear life and refuse to admit that it might require modification – allow her to manoeuvre her way through.
One of the virtues of this book is to remind us that we have been here before. May’s limitations, and her inability under pressure to transcend them, were exposed in the 2017 general election campaign.
Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh cast much new light on that campaign. Her advisers realised she remained popular, in the first year of her prime ministership, in part because she was not over-exposed. People found this a refreshing change from what had gone before, when David Cameron, who has a wonderful facility with words, embraced with enthusiasm the task of being “commentator in chief”.
May could not fill, morning after morning, the Thought for the Day slot, and the public quite liked the fact that she could not fill it. Inarticulacy, the use of polite smiles and bland phrases to indicate generalised goodwill without actually saying anything or getting too closely involved, is a British characteristic. We warm to the person like May who prefers looking after the tea urn to making a series of listen-to-me remarks over a bottle of champagne.
In that sense, she is well-suited to being an anti-Establishment politician. Members of the Establishment are always so damn sure of themselves, always so ready to explain to lesser mortals why their view of the world is the correct one. May does not possess that eloquence which so easily slips into arrogance.
Chris Wilkins, who had worked for her when she was Conservative Party Chairman and in 2002 drafted her famous “nasty party” speech, at the start of 2017 wrote with James Johnson, who was doing some polling for Number Ten about how she was seen as Prime Minister, a paper, quoted in this book, about how she should be used:
“Harness the strength and popularity of the Prime Minister when it is appropriate… But one of the things people like about her approach is that it is business-like, and that she is quietly getting on with the job, and not always in the public spotlight… The very strength of the PM’s presence is that she is not always present.“
Wilkins and his colleagues in Downing Street wanted May to be the “change candidate”, which was how she had presented herself when she entered Number Ten and promised to be driven “not by the interests of the privileged few”, but by the just about managing: “I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle.”
She was going to be the candidate not so much of Middle England as of working-class England, going after voters who had shown in the referendum that they wanted not just to leave the EU but “a fundamental change to how the country works”.
Lynton Crosby, who ended up running the 2017 campaign, later dismissed this line of thinking as “classic woolly populist bullshit”. One of the Number Ten advisers who produced it tells Cowley and Kavanagh that it was at least “very effective and strongly researched classic woolly populist bullshit”.
Crosby insisted the line to be used when launching the 2017 manifesto must be “strong and stable” – words May repeated so often during the seven-week campaign that she soon started to sound like a parody of herself.
And she was presenting a manifesto for change, including what quickly came to be known as the dementia tax. Two months ago, Paul Goodman published on this site the radical, anti-establishment, change-focused election launch speech Wilkins had written to go with the manifesto.
As it was, the speech she gave did not go with the manifesto she was launching. One or other should have been jettisoned.
And the ultimate responsibility for that lies with May, not with Crosby or with anyone else. These authors write in a scrupulously impartial manner, but indicate that May was often astonishingly uncritical of the material put before her:
“Blessed with an extremely good memory, the Prime Minister had the ability to read a full statement and repeat it almost verbatim. As one of her team noted: ‘She reads it through once, it’s an almost photographic memory. And I mean word-for-word, not paraphrasing.’ But unlike some Prime Ministers, May did not get closely involved in preparing speeches. She would occasionally cut things out, but there was never much back and forth. ‘At times,’ said another aide, ‘I found it a bit worrying just how easy it was to get the Prime Minister to say things.'”
One could call this professional of May. If you have a good speech-writer, why not just use what they provide? But it is in the process of writing a speech that you discover what it is possible for you as Prime Minister, or indeed you as a less significant person, to say with conviction. You find out what you actually believe, and how to set about taking the public into your confidence. With May – and in fairness to her, with many other politicians too – listeners generally feel they are being kept at an insultingly safe distance from both her head and her heart.
Margaret Thatcher devoted enormous effort to her most important speeches, often destroying in the process all the best stuff that had been served up to her by such figures as Ronald Millar, John Selwyn Gummer, Matthew Parris and Ferdinand Mount, the last of whom has written, in Cold Cream, a wonderfully funny account of the horror of writing things for her.
The manifesto was hard going too, for as Mount relates,
“all concerned were determined that the document should be as bland and inoffensive as possible. This was not Mrs Thatcher’s view. She kept on sending back the draft with ‘Dull, nothing exciting in this’ scrawled in her manic sprawly hand. The manifesto group then tried to think of a different way of being dull which at least sounded a bit livelier. ‘Couldn’t we have a sentence about our magical heritage of moorland and mountain?’ I said wistfully. This was greeted with derision, especially by Nigel Lawson.”
Thatcher’s way of doing things was by no means perfect, but at least it meant the major documents she was going to have to present and defend had been subjected to ferocious scrutiny before they saw the light of day. May’s willingness to spout her lines like an obedient schoolchild seems by comparison culpably negligent, indeed culpably unimaginative. It is as if she does not even realise how much what she says matters.
The book under review takes its place in a series of studies of all 20 general elections since 1945. It makes use of Mark Wallace’s “devastating account” on this site of how the Conservative Party’s “rusty machine” failed to function in 2017.
The 500 pages provide a quarry of materials on which other historians will be able to draw for many years to come. The authors adorn their text with some of the best cartoons published during the election, as well as with learned tables.
And they start to place May in a wider perspective. Harold Wilson in 1970 and Edward Heath in 1974 called elections earlier than needed, and lost, but James Callaghan in 1978 and Gordon Brown in 2007 declined to call elections which they might have won. Here are the authors comparing May to the latter figure:
“Whilst neither might like the comparison, there were multiple similarities between May and Brown. One was a son of the manse, the other a vicar’s daughter; both had a belief in public service and in trying to do what they thought was right for their country; both had enhanced their reputations with extended periods of ministerial office in one department; both followed prime ministers who they and especially members of their teams saw as superficial; both had loyal, perhaps excessively loyal, consiglieres who had dysfunctional relationships with others in their party; both experienced honeymoon periods after taking office, in which they enjoyed high levels of public popularity (often to the surprise of those who knew them well), after which both then struggled to articulate their vision; both appeared to suffer from a lack of emotional intelligence, often failing to connect or at least appear to empathise with the public; and both – in different ways – were to come a cropper over snap elections.”