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”.
What have voters learned from the pushback against Boris Johnson’s two major public interventions in the last few months – his Telegraph article setting out a vision for a positive Brexit and his calls for more money for the NHS? Have they learned that he is a loose cannon who has over-reached and is doing the country a disservice? Or that the Conservative Party leadership has failed to act upon positive policy suggestions that voters would like to see?
Much of the commentary around Johnson suggests the former, but it’s surely the latter. In slapping him down for calling for more money for the NHS, the Party leadership might have demonstrated “strength” – but that will be a message heard and understood by a tiny number of Westminster insiders, while the rest of the country will have heard and understood that the Party isn’t committed to spending more money on a service which the public love and believe to be struggling badly.
Simply put: it cannot be cost-free for those leading the Party to effectively distance themselves from popular retail policies and to offer practically nothing in their place. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary’s interventions have been crass and perhaps he’s over-reached – although I personally doubt both – but he’s currently the only politician articulating a positive case that can and will attract key target voters, because he’s doing it on issues the public really care about (Brexit and health).
It’s often said about great midfield players that they make football look easy. They constantly simplify: why make a complicated pass when a simple one will often do. Johnson makes politics and campaigns look easy because he ignores peripheral issues and focuses on what voters care about. There are few of those pure campaigning politicians around.
As Paul often points out on this site, it’s far, far easier to be a critic and pundit than a participant. It’s easy to sit and criticise and moan from outside. But it genuinely makes no sense why the Government isn’t constructing and announcing policy ideas to start to take the fight to Labour. Whether the Party likes it or not, they’re likely to be in a full-scale battle at the next election. And whether Theresa May likes it or not, she’s in a battle to stay at Number Ten. They’ve got to start announcing some popular stuff.
I put it so crudely – the need to announce “stuff” – because it’s getting to the point that, within reason, it doesn’t matter what that stuff is. They just have to announce something for mainstream voters to get some momentum. With the best will in the world, Number Ten is simply too small an operation to create the policies for such a campaign. They’re going to have to come from the departments themselves. Secretaries of State and ministers are going to have to be told: “forget ten-year plans and forget quietly competent delivery. Instead, come up with some policies that can appeal to swing voters as soon as possible.” Theresa May largely made her reputation on quiet competence, so a campaign along these lines won’t come naturally – but there’s little choice but to change.
If they don’t – and this is true on health, more than any other policy – they shouldn’t be irritated if Johnson starts doing it for them.