ConservativeHome has not been out and about with the Prime Minister on her campaign bus. Instead, Andrew Gimson has been tramping the streets of Birmingham and Newport talking to voters, and will be doing more of the same during the next few weeks. They are not always nice about politicians. But nor are some journalists about that bus – and this Tory campaign as a whole. The claim is that this is “the most controlled campaign ever” – a claim picked up here, unsurprisingly, by the Daily Mirror. Is it true?
First, some context. The Tory campaign is, beyond question, mind-numbingly dull (or at least has been to date). This site has been spoofing it with the mock-ups accompanying this article – showing a robotic Theresa May repeating “Strong and stable leadership/strong and stable leadership/strong and stable leadership” and “Coalition of chaos/coalition of chaos/coalition of chaos” ad nauseam.
But campaigns are not devised for the entertainment of journalists and websites. They are crafted to win votes. And in putting this one together, Lynton Crosby et al know what they’re doing. They understand that, in the age of Snapchat and selfies, few follow politics closely (if at all), and that one’s main point must be repeated and repeated and repeated until it has been hammered home into the most recalcitrant skull of the most uninterested voter in the most remote target seat.
They also appreciate that modern elections are contested on television at a national level. So it has been for the best part of 40 years. The mass electoral meetings at which politicians faced the public, with TV cameras in attendance, were dead and buried by the time of the 1979 election. It is the best part of 50 since Enoch Powell turned on a heckler in Birmingham (“Judas!” “Judas was paid! I am making a sacrifice!”) and even longer since Harold Wilson was outwitted by one. (“Why am I talking about the navy?” “Because you’re in Chatham!”)
That the Prime Minister is filmed speaking to supportive audiences, often consisting of Party activists and candidates, is nothing new at all. Nor is the absence of local people from the venues at which these events take place. However, the Conservative operation is probably tighter than ever in ensuring, when May does a factory or office walkabout, that no journalist is anywhere near her – thus ensuring that no awkward questions or hostile exchanges see the light of day.
It is also the case that the presence of print journalists on the campaign bus is more restricted than that of broadcast ones. But one political correspondent told ConservativeHome that this development is part of a longer story. “Life on the Tory campaign bus has been changing anyway,” he said. “Central campaign control was much tighter in 2015 than in 2010 – when you could get on the bus and ask David Cameron more or less whatever you liked”. In this sense too, then, the charge against CCHQ carries weight, though the change has been gradual, not sudden.
There has been a hullabalo over journalists on the bus being quizzed by Tory press officers over what questions they will ask May. But CCHQ argues vigorously that, during previous campaigns, those journalists had less freedom to quiz the Prime Minister. It also insists that no instruction has gone out to vet questions. It may be worth noting that Michael Crick, who follows these matters closely and has been on CCHQ’s back, was tweeting later yesterday about May taking random questions from journalists. The question vetters appear to have been called off.
What may lie at the heart of the controversy is a difference between the way May and her team see her, and the way in which some campaign staff view them. The Prime Minister thinks of herself as a veteran campaigner who enjoys nothing better than a spot of canvassing and getting out and about among voters. (That she has done so during this campaign, with those TV cameras present, is evidence against that charge of obsessive control. After all, a voter could come to the door and do to May what Sharon Storer did to Tony Blair in 2001.)
Ministers, SpAds, civil servants and some CCHQ staff don’t always agree. ConservativeHome hears again and again not that this is the most centralised campaign ever, but that this is the most centralised Government ever: that key decisions are restricted to the Prime Minister, her two Chiefs of Staff and perhaps Philip May, who was loosed yesterday on the British public. Whether or not this charge is true is beside the point – which is that some CCHQ staff clearly believe it is and that, in seeking to vet journalists’ questions, they were doing Number Ten’s bidding.
In any event, the Prime Minister is taking chances with interviewers that David Cameron didn’t take. For example, she will be interviewed by Andrew Neil during the campaign. This was an encounter that her predecessor avoided in office. She will also be exposed to “the first broadcast interview with Theresa May in which voters can ask the questions”, in the words of LBC. She “will be interviewed by Nick Ferrari who will take questions from LBC’s audience”. Obsessive central control and an aversion to risk-taking would have smothered these events in the cradle.
The most boring campaign ever? Possibly. The most leader-focused one, seized with Führerprinzip, as the Prime Minister is projected to the near-exclusion of her party? Probably. The most controlled one – with the Prime Minister seeking to avoid tough questions and journalistic scrutiny? The charge simply isn’t proven. But perhaps the reason it has gained velocity is something to do with character.
Cameron may not exactly have enjoyed being questioned by journalists, but he seems to have relished playing the media game – knowing who was who in the lobby, pitting his wits against interlocutors, getting out the line he wanted to get out. Indeed, the former Guardian columnist would have made a very fine professional journalist himself. By contrast, May does not like the game at all. That doesn’t mean that she can’t play it – far from it. But we hacks pick up the signals. Perhaps that’s why some of us are so vexed.