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James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
Can the Conservatives simultaneously win votes in Middlesbrough and Canterbury? It’s arguably the most important question for Conservative Party strategists in the next few years – and it was the title of a Policy Exchange fringe meeting at Party Conference, at which I spoke. So what’s the answer? While there are many caveats, the simple answer is no – and the Party shouldn’t try. But here follows a development of the argument.
The Conservative Party currently enjoys significant competitive advantage over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour on a series of important issues – most obviously, the economy and crime. Furthermore, despite their obvious problems, the Conservative team is way out in front of Labour on competence – crucial when the country is feeling worried about the future. And it’s not the case that incumbents always lose when things go bad on their watch; the public are always thinking about who’s best to lead them out of existing problems.
In ordinary times, the electoral script would write itself: ramp up the issues of the economy and crime and force people to ask who they’d rather govern the country in difficult times. From the reasonably affluent middle class to the reasonably well-off – essentially those reliant on a stable economy for their salary – the Conservatives would theoretically have a message that could unite the country.
But we aren’t in ordinary times. For the foreseeable future, political debate is going to be overwhelmingly dominated by Brexit – and heavily influenced by the culture war that Corbyn and his hardcore left-wing supporters are generating and forcing onto the political agenda. Like it or not, any sort of nationally unifying message is going to get drowned out amid the need to say something clear on what are outrageously divisive issues.
On Brexit, it isn’t going to be possible to simultaneously please Leave voters in the Midlands and North, and Remain voters in the affluent South. And on cultural issues it isn’t going to be possible to speak happily to both traditional working class voters and culturally aggressive upper middle class metropolitan voters. In time, it might be, but, for now, it isn’t going to be possible to speak to voters in both Middlesbrough and Canterbury (or, at least, much of London).
So why choose Middlesbrough? Again, things may change, but, as it is now, the Conservative Party stands on the verge of a massive electoral breakthrough in areas where they’ve enjoyed little or no success in decades – in the post-industrial Midlands and North. In areas where the name “Thatcher” and “Tory” were spat out rather than said, voters are considering the Conservatives for the first time. And they’re doing so because they back the Party on Brexit and because they think Corbyn’s Labour has completely lost the plot and fallen for niche issues such as the Middle East.
That doesn’t mean the Party needs to move right; on the contrary, it means maintaining a commitment to mainstream Conservative values on issues like the nation state and law and order, while accommodating on issues like the NHS (as the Party has done). In short, it means returning to Theresa May’s stated early strategy post her leadership election victory.
The Party should do what it can to reassure Canterbury voters that Brexit isn’t about voting to pull up the drawbridge (which it isn’t); and the Party should also make it clear that Corbyn’s Labour are going to financially clobber the affluent middle class with an array of taxes (which they surely will). But the Party should follow a reassurance strategy, rather than seeking to aggressively define the Party for these voters as many Conservatives seem to advocate.
There’s a caveat to the caveat, of course. None of us knows how the Brexit process will play out. There’s a reasonable chance that we’ll face a turbulent and chaotic period in the eventuality of “no deal”. In such circumstances, a total strategic reboot will be required. But, again as it stands, it’s reasonable to assume that, such is the commitment of Midlands and Northern voters to a clean Brexit (call it “hard” if you like), the Party ought to stay the course. We’ll know if this is viable soon enough.