James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Theresa May’s reputation is built on competence. She was viewed as a highly competent Home Secretary – a politician with the right temperament, decent judgement and a command of policy.
The Home Office is a notoriously difficult Department to handle for a long period; she did so with apparent comfort.
May is also seen, understandably, as being more in touch with Middle England than David Cameron – partly because of her upbringing but also because of her stated political priorities (like her focus on the ‘Just About Managing’).
In ordinary political times, it would be thought that these qualities would limit damage to May’s reputation that might be brought about by the difficulties that have emerged in the last few weeks.
Rail strikes in the South of England have been followed by a tube strike, and more unrest is threatened. Much more seriously, it appears that the NHS is facing significant difficulties this winter. We all know from personal experiences the NHS is always creaking and that queues are long, and delays and cancellations common. But the public don’t always know what the national situation is. Now they do.
All this is clearly going to challenge May’s reputation, but we don’t live in ordinary political times. We live in times where the Labour Party is led by someone who is not only completely out of touch with ordinary people, but who appears to struggle with even the most basic tasks of his job.
Commentators have given Corbyn a mauling for his comments this week on immigration – where he seemed to be readying an accommodation with the public on numbers, before saying they weren’t too high after all – and they’ve also criticised his confusing comments on high pay. But this is just the latest in a line of errors from Corbyn. He is developing the complete opposite reputation to May – as someone who is fundamentally incompetent.
If the challenges the NHS faces became a full-blown crisis rather than a serious but seasonal problem, the Prime Minister will be badly damaged – just as she will be if the Brexit negotiations start badly. But it is also possible that Conservative ratings will ultimately rise as she is seen to tackle problems – on the NHS and generally – mainly because people might conclude that having Jeremy Corbyn in charge would be immeasurably worse.
This developing contrast in people’s minds – between May and Corbyn – will become more pronounced as we approach the General Election.
The Conservative script for 2020 is writing itself: “who do you trust more?” Whatever happens with Brexit, the NHS and all the rest, it will surely be this that evolves as the Conservatives’ top message. In fact, and time will tell, it might not be worth the Conservatives drawing any serious ideological differences between the parties and risk putting off any prospective voters. It might be that this issue of competence is a great unifying force for the Conservatives.