Terry Barnes writes for the Australian edition of The Spectator, and advised Tony Abbott when he was a Cabinet minister in John Howard’s government.
Had Theresa May studied some very recent history she might have been wiser to the electoral fate that she has largely have brought upon herself.
This history was made in Australia, not Britain. This time last year, the Liberal-National Party government of Malcolm Turnbull turned a very comfortable majority into a one-seat margin, and now rely on confidence and supply agreements with several independent MPs to secure its precarious position. Sound familiar?
His government was already riven by Turnbull’s deposition of Tony Abbott, his predecessor as Prime Minister, less Its position since has deteriorated steadily – assailed on the Left by a rampant and rejuvenated Labor opposition, and on the Right by disaffected liberal conservatives led by Abbott.
His bid for a personal mandate having been torpedoed, Turnbull is struggling to stay afloat. He consistently trails in opinion polls, and now feels compelled to steal key policies of the “defeated” Labor Party that his own membership base abhors.
The parallels between the Conservatives’ electoral fiasco this year, and the Australian Liberals’ a year earlier, are so uncanny that it’s unbelievable that they weren’t studied, absorbed and acted upon by Team May – especially when Lynton Crosby and his pollster partner, Mark Textor, were centrally involved in both campaigns.
So what are the resemblances? Here are some ways.
Theresa May went to the people just two years into her Government’s five-year term. The imminent commencement of Brexit negotiations may have driven her to seek a fresh personal mandate, but there was no need for her to go at all. A third general election in as many years – the Brexit referendum being a de facto poll – will have annoyed not only the BBC’s now-famous Brenda from Bristol, but voters right across the UK.
That May gave up the impending advantage of a Commons electoral redistribution and seat reduction, reforms that should favour the Conservatives, added insult to injury.
In Australia, Turnbull was nearing the end of the normal parliamentary term, but he went needlessly for what is called a “double dissolution” – the full dissolution of both the House of Representatives and Senate. Had he been patient, he could have gone to term, and contested the election under new Senate voting rules that would have cleared out many recalcitrant crossbenchers who had stymied first Abbott and then Turnbull at every turn. Instead, those crossbenchers are back in greater numbers, and more obstructionist than ever.
Pointlessly presidential campaigns
The 2017 campaign in Britain became a very personal campaign centred around May herself. Conservative candidates became “Theresa May’s team”. The Tory brand itself was relegated to small print on her battle bus.
In Australia last year, the Liberal Party became “The Turnbull Coalition Team”. In both cases, the Prime Minister was wheeled out for daily set-pieces but, equally, the Prime Ministers’ electoral standing and personal charisma couldn’t carry a presidential campaign strategy – neither seemed comfortable about mixing with the punters, and the non-debating “May-bot” had her Australian equivalent in Turnbull’s stilted and wooden campaign appearances.
If a presidential campaign in a Westminster system goes well, it enhances and magnifies the power of the successful leader. But when it goes wrong, there’s nowhere the leader can hide. Turnbull was diminished and humiliated in 2016, but he clung on in the absence of a credible Big Beast alternative. May, with the likes of Boris Johnson, David Davis and Amber Rudd ready in the wings, does not necessarily have the same luxury.
Mindless mantras and ignoring the base
When Turnbull deposed Abbott in 2015, Textor said, in relation to Liberal base supporters being partisans of Abbott and not Turnbull: “The qualitative evidence is they don’t matter. The sum of a more centrist approach outweighs any alleged marginal loss of so-called base voters.’’
In other words, don’t worry about upsetting the base, Prime Minister – they have nowhere else to go.
But Textor was proved wrong. In the 2016 election and since, large chunks of the Liberal vote have drifted to local equivalents of UKIP. In Britain, it appears that Textorite thinking permeated Team May’s campaign in assuming that most Leave voters generally, and UKIP voters particularly, would go Conservative post-Brexit. Neither Crosby, Textor or Team May appear to have anticipated that many of these “pick-up” voters would break Labour’s way.
Instead, the Conservative campaign and manifesto, especially through the unwise and ill-thought through social care and winter fuel allowance proposals, sent a very negative message to the Party’s loyal over-50 support base – just as Labour was successfully marshalling the youth vote through social media. When your own core support feels betrayed, threatened and taken for granted, electoral peril ensues.
The mindless mantra messaging of “Strong and Stable”, repeated ad nauseam by May, was the British version of Turnbull’s “Jobs and Growth”, both courtesy of the Crosby-Textor message discipline playbook. Turnbull and now May have found, to their great cost, that a simple slogan is neither a policy, principle, nor a programme for government.
Central command and control
Much has been said about the unelected power of Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. Katie Perrior’s excoriating piece in The Times last Saturday, and the reported insistence by Philip Hammond, and other Cabinet ministers that the aides’ departure was a “red line” precondition for any ongoing support for the Prime Minister, emphasised how much the hyper-loyal Downing Street Praetorian Guard damaged their Empress.
At some stage, well before now, Sir Lynton could – should – have reminded May, Hill and Timothy of the fate of Tony Abbott. Abbott was brought down by his own MPs in part because his own chief-of-staff, Peta Credlin, was a combination of Hill’s ferocious gatekeeping (with Anglo-Saxon invective to match), Timothy’s tight control of policy-making…and a touch of Bertie Wooster’s glass-eating Aunt Agatha thrown in.
Abbott had the chance to let Credlin go before it was too late, but refused. When the coup came, Turnbull lieutenants claim that some Liberal MPs voting against Abbott to remove Credlin ensured Turnbull’s victory. It appears that May’s reluctance to rein in her unpopular chiefs of staff, and put Cabinet colleagues and Cabinet collegiality first, has put her in a similar predicament to Abbott’s.
Badly underestimating the opposition
In 2016, Australian Labor threw caution and policy principle to the wind. They thought of themselves as having little chance of winning the general election, and instead championed the electorate’s accumulated grievances against the Abbott and Turnbull governments on austerity, healthcare, welfare reform, climate change, failing to legislate gay marriage – and myriad petty grievances across the spectrum.
Turnbull also refused to attack the dubious trade union history of Bill Shorten, the Labor leader, who offered a vein of political gold as rich as Jeremy Corbyn’s career as far Left rabble-rouser. Populist and unfunded Labor policies went unchallenged, and a series of baseless scare campaigns waged by Shorten went unanswered by a Prime Minister without adequate policy clothes of his own. Turnbull’s disdain for the rough and tumble of political combat all but destroyed him and his government on polling day.
It’s evident that May and the Conservative campaign similarly underestimated Jeremy Corbyn and Labour. They must have thought that voters would see through both “Red Jezza” and the socialist absurdity of the Labour manifesto. Just as in Australia last year, the tack-and-cover of a conventional campaign was largely ignored out of complacency and hubris: Team May’s late-campaign attempts to frame Corbyn and Labour as economically-illiterate crackpots and terrorist sympathisers were too little, too late, too shrill.
In terms of votes and seats, Corbyn fell well short of the Conservatives. But his moral victory over May, the Conservatives and the centre-right cause was comprehensive indeed.
These are just a few very salient parallels from recent Australian politics that Team May failed to learn – and thereby doomed themselves to repeat last Thursday. There are others still. It is hard to believe that, given his and Textor’s experience as the common element to both campaigns, Sir Lynton would not have at least tried to share these Australian insights that might – might – have just helped the Prime Minister avoid her now likely fate.
If May and her inner circle did receive such counsel from their Australian connection and disregarded it, they can only blame themselves.