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.
“Above all, the Conservatives should be obsessing about contrast – not just on Brexit, but other wedge issues too: tax levels, crime and justice policies and free movement.”
Last Saturday, with Manchester University, my agency ran a massive research exercise of 24 focus groups for The Times with swing voters in marginals across England and Wales. The Times has been writing it all up this week.
Here are the reasons to be hopeful for Conservatives.
Brexit: Brexit wasn’t all people cared about but it was dominant. The prevailing mood was a weariness to “get Brexit done”. Gone were passionate divisions of previous focus groups; while differences were audible, most Remainers and Leavers were united in a desire to move the hell on with political life. This has changed in the last 3 months.
Jeremy Corbyn: A tiny minority of people liked Jeremy Corbyn, a significant minority really disliked him, but most thought he was useless and would make a bad PM. Labour will pick up votes, but in spite of him.
Working Class: The most hostile to Corbyn and indeed the Labour Party were traditional working class voters from the Midlands and North. There’s clearly a massive cultural clash going on – and many of these voters are preparing to shock parents and grandparents by voting Tory.
Change:Nobody talked about Labour in the context of change. Labour has a great slogan but nothing else. Arguably, the Conservatives have owned change by promising an end to the status quo by getting Brexit done.
But there were reasons to be worried too:
Boris Johnson:There was no love for Corbyn, but little for Boris Johnson either. Forget his personal life, people worried he didn’t tell the truth on political issues that matter. Labour’s attacks on his previous journalistic comments were widely known and repeated (particularly by women, young people and those from minority backgrounds).
Attacks:Not just on Boris Johnson, Labour’s attack lines had cut through – on cuts to the NHS, the police and schools. On the other hand, Conservative attacks on tax, crime, free movement and economic stability were nowhere.
Lib Dems:The Lib Dems and Jo Swinson only registered in London, but barely there. They seem unlikely to peel off many left-leaning voters.
What does all this mean going into the final week? Things seem tighter than the polls suggest but that the Conservatives will get over the line. Above all, the Conservatives should be obsessing about contrast – not just on Brexit, but other wedge issues too: tax levels, crime and justice policies and free movement. On these issues, for the Conservatives, the more rows the better. Across earned media and paid media: we believe this, they believe that.
James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
“Trust has been the key theme of this election, mostly the lack of it. People are jaded by the wrangling of Brexit, they are angry at the tone of our political discourse, the promised sunny uplands are not visible from where they are standing.”
The first winter election since 1923 is coming to its close. There is one last staged hurrah for Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn tonight, with a TV debate that will probably make about as much difference to the electorate’s view as TV debates do… None.
Over the next week people up and down the country will be making a choice. They will decide who they believe more, as opposed to who they believe. It will be a question that weighs heavily on the conscious of the entire electorate; no photo op or successful rally is going to shift the dial, or make a critical difference now. The question before us is too fundamental, for that.
Trust has been the key theme of this election, mostly the lack of it. People are jaded by the wrangling of Brexit, they are angry at the tone of our political discourse, the promised sunny uplands are not visible from where they are standing. They have lost faith in the system.
Repairing this will take more than just delivering Brexit, though that would be a good start. What we need is resolution. “Denying Boris Johnson his majority” is a seductive message, indeed many Conservatives I have spoken to are holding their nose and voting blue with others confessing that they may quietly spoil their ballot papers or just not turn up. If this is true for large numbers of tory voters the hung Parliament it would precipitate would be a disaster.
I too, have wrestled with several issues I find difficult about today’s Tories. I worry about the unnecessary hard-line direction we sometimes go in on a multitude of issues. I’m concerned by the short-termism of some of our actions. I question what we represent as a whole and dislike lurching from issue to issue. But there is nowhere else for me to go and if I don’t like what I see then it’s reason to double down and make the alternative case from the inside.
A majority has always been necessary to break the impasse, even a small one will do. The process of Brexit will not end soon but arbitrary deadlines aside, seeing progress is just as important. My family, like many others, just want to get on with our lives. We want security and certainty, that’s why, on December 12th, I will be voting Conservative.
Salma Shah was a special adviser to Sajid Javid from 2014 to 2019.
“For many voters the Conservative Party still has deeply negative connotations. Johnson hopes that the Brexit and Corbyn factors in this election can overcome these deeply-held, and often long-standing, worries.”
With just six days the polling appears to have narrowed a little but not enough to represent a 2017 repetition at this time. YouGov’s latest voting intention shows a Conservative lead of nine points (42/-33) – enough to deliver a working majority for the Prime Minister.
But should things change markedly in the final week what might we look back on to help explain a Conservative under-performance come Thursday? Let’s look at four such possible factors:
Swinson out: it could be that CCHQ have been *too* successful at sidelining the Liberal Democrats. This might help Corbyn squeeze the Yellows in Red marginals the Blues badly need. For if one half of the Tory strategy to win Northern marginals was to unite the Leave vote, the other half was to see Remainers divided and the Lib Dem’s failure to launch has allowed Labour a far easier time of uniting Remain voters than might have been expected.
Too long a campaign: the failure/inability of both the May and Johnson administrations to rid themselves of the Fixed-term Parliament Act meant that the general election ran on longer than the Tories must have wished. A shorter campaign may well have aided a bigger Tory win as the trajectory of their poll lead throughout the campaign has been down, not up!
Trump came to town: Fully 48 per cent of Conservative voters view a potential Trump endorsement as very or fairly unhelpful for British politicians. There was thus likely real relief when, in the firmest proof of ‘The Special Relationship’ between CCHQ and the Republican Party, Trump left town early, cancelling his final press conference. But it still allowed for several days of Johnson/Trump attacks from Labour.
Continued Conservative toxicity: From more recent events like Windrush and Grenfell to stubborn brand perceptions like ‘the party of the rich’ to legacy memories of the miner’s strike or the Poll Tax, for many voters the Conservative Party still has deeply negative connotations. This particularly hampers the Conservatives with working-class voters in the North of England and Wales, and ethnic minority and young voters in big cities.
May hoped to achieve detox with these voters in 2017 only to whither under ‘Nasty Party Redux’ voter worries. Johnson hopes that the Brexit and Corbyn factors in this election can overcome these deeply-held, and often long-standing, worries many voters have. Should he fall short, the need to improve the Conservative brand even more will be obvious.
Marcus Roberts is Director of International Projects at YouGov.
“Whilst the machines may be able to analyse the electorate’s demographics to the nth degree, unlike the country squires and the union bosses of yore there is no sense that today’s politicians really know their people.”
The silence feels ominous. Unless the second leaders’ debate catches fire, under all the media flim-flam, this campaign has been, in Hollywood terms, “Quiet. Too quiet” (first used, not by John Wayne, by the way, but in an account of the Battle of Balaclava in 1854).
Those words are normally followed by a massive shootout; but there’s no sign of that in this election – no Labour surge, no Lib Dem revival.
The only electoral event of note has been a slow escape of gas from the Brexit Party balloon, as four of its MEPs departed the fold. In spite of his protestations, it’s hard to see what Nigel Farage is cavilling about. Throwing hundreds of his own candidates under the Tory bus was as clear a signal as he could send that he wants a Johnson majority. All that his four departing MEPs are guilty of is taking him, not literally, but seriously.
As we approach Thursday’s high noon, the eerie quietus in town means either that no-one much cares who gets to be the next sheriff, or that the voters have already made up their minds. – but they just aren’t telling us what they want to do.
I tend to feel that a quiet electorate is not, as one MP claimed on the BBC’s Question Time, suffused with anger; it seems far more likely to be utterly fed up with the whole thing . Voters are most likely to plump for the outcome that means that the politicians stop haranguing us.
All the same, CCHQ is betraying its nerves. You can tell that the Tories are anxious when they fall back on an atavistic appeal to fear: “lock them up, and throw away the key”; “are you thinking what I’m thinking?”. They should believe more in the appeal of their own leader, let him show a little of his natural sunniness, and focus the electorate on whom they’d prefer to share their whisky or sarsparilla: Boris or Jeremy.
Labour looks desperate. Even if the voters believed in the gold rush promised by John McDonnell – Six Thousand Smackeroos for Every Family, plus a free bottle of Snake Oil – they wonder who’s going to train the nurses, lay the bricks and find the teachers.
Next Thursday, the guns will eventually fall silent, and the undertaker will shuffle in to take away the corpses. It may be an uneasy peace, or back to business as usual. Either way, I’m left with two reflections about the political and media classes.
First, the bribery and scare tactics of are necessary because, whilst the machines may be able to analyse the electorate’s demographics to the nth degree, unlike the country squires and the union bosses of yore there is no sense that today’s politicians really know their people. These are political clever clogs, who have been too busy clawing their way to the top of their parties since they were students. They have given themselves no time to learn how to divine the hopes, fears and desires of the electorate.
Second, the media. Much praise due to Andrew Neil. I have already written in these pages that he is the best of us. But the fact that facing him has emerged as the single test of a leader’s courage is absurd.There are others who could be just as effective; but they are being asked to interview in a fashion that suits today’s stonewalling, media-schooled politicians. We need to revisit, not the formats of our TV debates, but the quality of the minds in our newsrooms, which too often appear to be obsessed with theatre rather than journalism.
What separates Neil from the rest is not just a formidable intellect, vast experience, and a lifetime obsession with the minutiae of governing. Unlike others, Neil never starts from the assumption that the person opposite him is a liar and a charlatan. He is never rude or aggressive. He takes their good intentions for granted, asks them what exactly they might do with the power we lend them, and then courteously allows them demonstrate their total shallowness and dishonesty.
His is the work of the elegant, black suited, lone gunslinger armed with a pearl handled revolver; next to him, the rest seem like a snarling posse, firing blunderbusses wildly into the night.
Trevor Phillips is Chairman of Green Park Executive Search and a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange.