National security is rarely a priority for the public; people don’t usually vote on the issue. Ipsos-MORI’s tracker of issues the public care most about shows interest in national security – “defence / foreign affairs and terrorism” – swings with events but is low, with around 15 per cent typically expressing concern for it. This compares to the NHS, where public ratings are usually in the 50s, Europe, usually in the 40s, immigration, in the high 20s, the economy, usually in the low 20s, education, in the low 20s and housing, in the middle teens.
Politically speaking, this doesn’t mean the Conservatives shouldn’t worry about the issue; nor should they think their response to alleged Russian involvement in poisoning won’t dent public opinion. On the contrary, national security and Britain’s response to Russia could be extremely important to the Conservatives politically. This is for two reasons: firstly, because “national security” can often be a proxy for “leadership”; and secondly, because it offers the chance to further differentiate the party culturally from Labour, which is wildly out of touch with the working class and lower middle class on these sorts of issues.
Fundamentally, the Conservatives threw away the last election because of a manifesto written as if we were living in a national emergency and because they offered few reasons for the lower middle class to turn out. The “Maybot” narrative was overplayed. That said, Theresa May’s lack of natural campaigning ability undermined her ability to display leadership credentials – something that could have gone some way to dealing with the lack of retail policies. The disastrous Party conference last October and the apparently endless resignations and intra-party fighting has further damaged her reputation as a leader.
The reality is the Russian crisis has given her the opportunity to display strength and judgement. May’s critics often say she sees everything through a security lens, having been at the Home Office for so long. Others say she’s better at reacting to crises than having to dream up positive strategy. Both seem fair. That’s a problem in ordinary times, but undeniably useful now: she has the opportunity to rebuild her reputation as a leader.
This takes us to the second opportunity this crisis provides: the chance to differentiate culturally from Labour. Labour are now trying to show their support for the Government’s position on Russia but their initial response was extraordinarily weak and misjudged. Whatever the intention, through Jeremy Corbyn they appeared to cast doubt on the security services on a matter of serious national security.
While the Conservatives are often accused of having overplayed their negative campaigning on Jeremy Corbyn in the last election – for example, with the online ad that stressed his weakness on national security – this is wrong. The ad and the attack line was solid; it’s just that the Conservatives had so little positive to offer amid the negativity.
As regular readers of this column will know, much of my life is spent travelling the country speaking to people about politics, the economy and society. Much of this qualitative research is focused on the mass of working class and lower middle class voters I’ve been writing about here for so long. The more people I speak to, the more out-of-touch Corbyn and the Labour leadership seem to be on a cultural basis. Most people have a deep and simple sense of patriotism. This isn’t aggressive or hostile to outsiders, but it’s a patriotism that shows pride in the country as it is – and as it was in the past. National security is deeply tied up with this sense of patriotism.
At some point, assuming the Conservatives can develop a retail offer on healthcare, the economy, and life outside the EU (yes, all easier said than done), this cultural difference to Corbyn’s Labour could really matter. This means – politically as well as materially – national security matters. The Conservatives shouldn’t think their attempts to engage in a limited culture war on this issue in the 2017 election was a failure. They should keep up the attacks, but remember that they’ll only really make a difference if there are strong foundations on those issues that really matter to people’s daily lives.