Each week on Friday, ConservativeHome’s panel of James Frayne, Marcus Roberts, Trevor Phillips, and Salma Shah will be analysing and assessing what’s happening in the general election.
“This campaign veers between the suffocating, bullet-pointed language of Powerpoint and the demented sloganizing of Maoist pamphleteers.”
The 52nd governor of New York State, Mario Cuomo, memorably wrote in 1985 that “you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose”.
Cuomo himself sought to emulate the Tennysonian cadences of Churchill, with some success; in his 1984 speech to the Democratic Convention, he attacked Ronald Reagan, himself no mean purveyor of Robert Frost-style folksiness: “Mr. President, you ought to know that this nation is more a Tale of Two Cities than it is just a Shining City on a Hill”.
Cuomo would search in vain for memorable speech this week. Until Friday, when Labour produced its big broadband pledge, we weren’t even treated to any decent, workmanlike prose. This campaign veers between the suffocating, bullet-pointed language of Powerpoint and the demented sloganizing of Maoist pamphleteers.
Boris Johnson obviously possesses the oratorical gifts to reverse Cuomo’s maxim and conjure an evocative phrase while in government. Yet this week the best that even he could do was the oratorical equivalent of a schoolboy limerick.
He quickly scrubbed it off the toilet door when called to account by the media, claiming that the pre-briefed reference to “Onanists” was the work of some junior fag. Not very convincing; you can’t come up with “the wankerer from Ankara” and still expect to be treated as the reincarnation of Henry V.
The Lib Dems’ cheery Hallmark card (“ Hope every caring thought of you will just come shining through”) was slightly more memorable than the Greens’ haiku: “Carbon increases; air warms through century past; more heavy rains fall” (really: written by a climate change scientist, which probably explains it).
Nigel Farage, as predicted, threw his own party under the bus; he may claim that he is contesting Labour marginals, but his decision not to run himself, and to vacate Tory-held seats, is a clear signal to his followers to vote Conservative. No number of Millwall choruses of “No-one likes us we don’t care” can muffle the foghorn message that he wants a Tory majority to seal his historical legacy.
For a moment Labour looked as though it might redeem the week with a late entry. They are, oddly, the only party to take the most important issue of our day – the sweeping revolution driven by digital technology – even half seriously. Corbyn is right to draw attention to Big Tech’s unlovely combination of unbridled power and utter failure to provide the infrastructure they promised.
Whether this will have the electors singing the manifesto in the streets is doubtful; Corbyn himself evokes McGonagall rather than Milton. And unfortunately, the Shadow Chancellor made Labour’s nationalisation of BT sound like an echo of Stalin’s version of the dictatorship of the proletariat, down to the forcible confiscation of kulak property (for which read, slashing the value of most people’s pension savings). He might as well have read out Uncle Joe’s own poetry:
“When the laments of the toiling peasants
Had moved you to tears of pity,
You groaned to the heavens, oh Bard,
Placed at the head of the people’s heads…”
Finally, the media: bored reporters trying to make Network Rail announcements of minor delays sound like the drama of incipient chaos. We need a Betjeman – or Linton Kwesi Johnson, maybe – to make this contest worth listening to.
Trevor Phillips is Chairman of Green Park Executive Search and a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange.
“The way Boris Johnson handled difficult encounters reminds us why he’s such an electoral asset – the perfect candidate to take on Jeremy Corbyn.”
Boris Johnson took some flak this week over the Government’s response to the floods in Northern England. Broadcast news stories showed him politely but firmly heckled by frustrated voters. CCHQ will have found this uncomfortable viewing.
But the way Boris Johnson handled difficult encounters reminds us why he’s such an electoral asset – the perfect candidate to take on Jeremy Corbyn. Regardless of what you think about him as a PM, or the Government’s handling of the floods (I’m not qualified to judge), he reminded us how he spearheaded Vote Leave’s 2016 victory. Imagine how May would have struggled, or even Cameron.
Very simply, he connects with people. Those understandably angry with their situation – and by extension the Government – still engaged with him personally. As was evident here, Boris Johnson throws himself into these trips, literally getting his hands and feet dirty. In turn he earns people’s respect or at least helps dial down their anger.
His raw campaigning skills were particularly evident in entirely different circumstances: in the Conservatives’ hit election ad. There isn’t a single other politician in British politics that could have produced anything vaguely similar. The comparison with Jeremy Corbyn is extreme and won’t be lost on people.
I wonder if the best the Conservatives can hope for in this campaign is a mix of Boris Johnson’s communications genius and a small number of high-profile, high impact policies on Brexit, immigration and crime. And, after this week, I wonder if this just might still be enough to get them over the line.
For, if anything, I worry more after Week Two about the Party’s strategy and message. Last week, I suggested the Conservatives were playing catch up by allowing Labour to own the message of change, which resonates so perfectly with the provincial working class – and by pushing an abstract optimistic message that I can’t see lighting up ordinary voters across the Midlands and North.
This week, not only have they doubled down on optimism, but two of their top announcements have been on clean energy and R&D spending. Decent enough for Southern Tory Remainers, but they’ll surely leave working class provincial voters cold. It seems reasonable to assume this will be the strategy for much of the campaign.
Conservative activists must hope that the election turns into the equivalent of a Presidential campaign. If the Conservatives win, Boris Johnson will have delivered the victory.
James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
“It’s a tad trite, but I want to be inspired. And I think the British public probably do too.”
Campaigns are often fought pseudo-scientifically. Meticulous grids full of announcements, based on analysis of data, a militaristic understanding of the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses, deployed with customary discipline.
Campaigns are well versed too. Hold back your manifestos, add some red meat for your base, some retail policy for your floating voters and avoid mistakes at all costs! This campaign is no different.
At the moment the Conservative campaign is paying dividends by using the playbook. A clear 14pt lead over Labour, perhaps enough to deliver that all so necessary majority. All that measuring and dissecting is helpful but we might well end up providing an entirely inaccurate analysis. Worse still, it has all become quite corporate, tried and tested. Safe.
Though it is always wise to remain cautious. Fewer people who associate with a single political party, Boris has had no time to form a record in government and no way of establishing a purpose beyond getting Brexit done.
We live in uncertain times, the old order we once recognised is morphing.
This is true more broadly in the world too. Looming trade battles, slowing economies even the atmosphere has become less predictable through climate change. The world is suffering from the pains of outgrowing what it once knew, the post-war consensus is straining to be relevant and the backlash against globalisation is seen but not understood.
A majority Conservative government is what this country desperately needs, but the Conservative party also needs a reason for being, beyond Brexit. It needs to establish its credibility as an intellectual force again and use this as its dividing line against an ever more ferocious hard left. It needs to address the bigger problems out there in the world and it must remind us that within its belief system there are answers. We need to be bolder.
Perhaps it is naive to suggest unveiling a bold vision during an election campaign? But hope has always been a stronger driver to the polling booths than fear. We know what we are against but what are we for? It makes for a better sell on the doorstep too, sure, getting us out of this Brexit mess is a strong and principled message but does it get to the crux of what drives decisions? Does it speak to the aspirations of the electorate?
It’s a tad trite, but I want to be inspired. And I think the British public probably do too.
Salma Shah was a special adviser to Sajid Javid from 2014 to 2019.
“The decision to exclude Jo Swinson from the Johnson/Corbyn debate could backfire if it helps Labour squeeze the LibDem vote still further.”
After a shaky first week, the Conservatives have steadied the ship and seen events break their way. In fact, despite red hopes
and blue fears of a 2017 encore this election appears to resemble 2015 more than 2017: a good start for Labour followed by a Conservative campaign comeback.
The Conservative lead has now grown to 14 points: 42-28. But this should be caveated by the understanding that it may be in part due to the absence of the Brexit party as a polling option for voters in those seats where they have stood down.
Critically, the election fundamentals still appear to favour Johnson. CCHQ want this election to be about the choice between Corbyn and Number 10 and about Brexit.
In this they will be buoyed by the latest YouGov numbers: Johnson continues to enjoy a commanding lead on ‘Best PM’: 44 to 22 over Corbyn; and whilst Corbyn’s (un)favourablility number has improved by eight points it still stands at -42. The Prime Minister in contrast has seen his favourability improve by 10 points to -6 and he is now within touching distance of that most rare and cherished of political gifts, a net positive personal rating.
At the same time, concern about Brexit has increased since its initial dip, with Brexit as a top issue for 66 per cent, up from 59 per cent after an initial drop from a pre-election high of 70 per cent.
Beyond Brexit, the Conservatives are successfully contesting even the political spaces that are traditional Labour strengths: asked who would be better at providing more jobs, its Conservative 32, Labour 22; keeping prices down is Conservative 30, Labour 18; and even on who voters trust on the NHS, where Johnson trails Corbyn by just five points, 25 to 30.
But wise heads at CCHQ would do well to look with some nervousness at the weeks to come. For the debates, the prospect of tactical voting and a shift in voter focus could each pose a threat to their majority dreams.
For as I raised last week, the decision to exclude Jo Swinson from the Johnson/Corbyn debate could backfire if it helps Labour squeeze the LibDem vote still further. This could lead to a further boost in anti-Conservative tactical voting making the task of taking seats in the Midlands, Wales and the North West that much harder.
Given this landscape, Conservative strategists might well be forgiven for wishing that the election was tomorrow and not in fact still weeks away.