In the aftermath of the last general election, this site ran one of its most comprehensive exercises. It was a three-part audit by Mark Wallace of the Conservative election campaign (see here, here and here). Central to it was to the fact that Theresa May didn’t lost her majority simply because of the manifesto. The rustiness of the CCHQ machine was a significant contributing factor. Perhaps it was inevitable, given the calling of a snap election, that the machine would not be oiled, glistening and ready to go – as it had been, pretty much, two years earlier.
Yesterday’s Government defeat in the Commons only strengthens our repeated view that a general election in the autumn is likely. On one side of Johnson will be Philip Hammond, Rory Stewart, David Gauke, Greg Clark, David Lidington – and perhaps other former Cabinet Ministers vehemently opposed to No Deal. On the other will be the Spartans, no less opposed to No Brexit by October 31.
One group or the other will come for Johnson in the event of his not being able to agree a deal with Brussels, depending on how he reacts and what he does. Any such deal is unlikely to pass the Commons in any event. Theresa May is going because hers failed to do so three times.
All this being so, who will be in charge at CCHQ? The answer isn’t: whoever Johnson appoints as his Party Chairman. (We presume that he will shuffle the present occupant, Brandon Lewis, because that’s what new leaders tend to do.) The experience of general elections in recent times is that the Chairman, come an election campaign, is more like, well, a Chairman than a Chief Executive – and arguably not even that.
In 2005, the Chief Executive figure was Lynton Crosby. In 2010, there wasn’t one: responsibility for the campaign was divided up between Steve Hilton, George Osborne and Andy Coulson. It misfired; David Cameron failed to win a majority, and so turned to the Liberal Democrats. Tim Montgomerie, then this site’s editor, published a general election review. So did Lord Ashcroft, with his usual research detail: see his Minority Verdict.
By 2015, Cameron and Osborne had learned their lesson. That year, Crosby was back, was ready – and so pulled off a spectacular electoral coup, helping to deliver a Conservative majority. In 2017, as Mark reported, he wasn’t fully prepared: there simply wasn’t time to amass the data that had helped to swing the election two years earlier. Nor was Crosby – or anyone else – clearly in charge. That year’s campaign model was more like 2010 than 2015.
So the big question that follows is: if not Crosby, if there is an autumn contest, then whom? Replying that the CCHQ team will run any campaign itself is not a convincing answer. The Conservative Party has become used to outsourcing its general election campaigns.
Who would do the data and polling? How would the Party deal with Labour’s presence in social media – or with Remainers pushing the Liberal Democrats? What about third party endorsements and campaigning, so helpful to Jeremy Corbyn only two years ago? Or getting candidates in place in the right marginal seats – and who knows what these would be in a four-way contest with Brexit undelivered? Or delivering a Team 2015-type exercise?
Even with the threat of Corbyn, could enough money be raised in time? These questions only scrape the surface. There seems to be no prospect of Johnson calling on Dominic Cummings, and Crosby himself may not be available: this long-term ally of Johnson’s has been largely absent from the membership stage of this leadership contest. Mark Fullbrook, his partner at Crosby Textor, has been in charge. We would rather not have to write another 2017-style election review in the autumn. But as matters stand, the prospect looks more likely than otherwise.