Iain Dale writes today on this site that the Conservatives have had a bad campaigning week. So has Labour. The Tories have had Alan Cairns’ resignation; Labour, Tom Watson’s. Both parties have stood candidates down, as is the way now, over remarks they’ve made: a Conservative said in 2014 that women at risk of rape should “keep their knickers” on; a socialist said this week that Israel is like a child abuser.
But bad weeks almost always don’t matter, at least in terms of affecting an election result. We can only think of one that has in recent times – though, admittedly, it was very recent. The collapse of the Tory social care policy in 2017, along with Theresa May’s failure as a front-woman more broadly, cost the Conservatives the majority that the local elections of that year had put them on course for.
Would four bad weeks matter? The Tories ran a jittery campaign in 1987: David Young, then a senior Minister, at one point grabbed the lapels of Norman Tebbit, then Party Chairman, and said “Norman, listen to me, we’re going to lose this f*cking election”. Margaret Thatcher went on to win the second of her landslide victories. Moral: if possessed by the urge to seize James Cleverly’s lapels, lie down until the feeling goes away.
Nonetheless, the Conservatives entered that contest with a big Commons majority and exited it with a big Commons majority. Boris Johnson enters this one without a majority at all. One cannot risk mistakes when the balance in Parliament is so fine, constituency contests are so multi-faceted, and when Brexit has not been delivered. Scratch deeper below the surface, and one finds a twin Tory structural problem.
First, the campaign is extraordinarily dependent on Johnson. David Cameron had George Osborne. Thatcher had Tebbit, Michael Heseltine, Cecil Parkinson – a mass of senior Ministers, over the years, who either helped shape strategy, communicated it, or both. The present Prime Minister is running the most leader-focused campaign since the last one. We know how that ended.
Expect to see a bit of the following: Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Matt Hancock (because we really, really, really love the NHS), Cleverly and Rishi Sunak. That’s a line-up pitched in particular at ethnic minority voters, among whom the Party does badly, and in particular Indian-origin voters, where it is doing a bit better. The same compulsion is evident from CCHQ’s visible minority-heavy shortlists for candidate selections.
Of these, the one who must make his shots count most is the Chancellor. His predecessor was cut out of the 2017 campaign almost altogether. Consequently, the economic attack on what a Corbyn Government would mean for your wallet never came. Javid is not well known to many voters, though his leadership campaign was a start. He must deliver.
Next, the shortage of big campaigning hitters is mirrored by the absence of top strategic thinkers. In 2015, Lynton Crosby’s work was primed by years of research – he had gradually been pumping up his role at CCHQ – and very clear messaging from the Osborne-Cameron team: long-term economic plan; people who work hard and play by the rules; long-term economic plan; people who work hard and play by the rules…
Johnson has: Get Brexit Done. But general elections are inevitably about more than one issue, however crucial, and it isn’t clear who is currently playing Osborne to Isaac Levido’s Lynton Crosby. Dominic Cummings is a fearsome operator, but he’s not used to having a party fronting for a campaign, and has been concentrating on Brexit policy in any event.
Last time, we commissioned an illustration of May ceaselessly repeating “strong and stable”. We ditched it after the social care fiasco, and replaced it with a bubble saying: “Me or Corbyn”. That became the then Prime Minister’s last ditch message and it just about worked. This time round, it should be Johnson’s slogan of first resort, both because much of the gilt has come off the Labour leader since 2017, and because it’s true.
Which returns us to public services and living standards. If this becomes a Brexit election, the Conservatives are likely to win it, and win well – making up for damage done by the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party with gains from Labour. If it becomes a domestic policy election, those Labour-background, Leave-voting punters in Midlands and Northern marginals will stick with Corbyn or, more likely, stay at home. So then, Saj: no pressure.