James Frayne: The Tories need to start banging on about Europe again
The Conservative leadership does not want to be defined by Europe - but that's looking less and less realistic.
Given the importance of Brexit to the country, the media's understandable obsession with it, and voters' evident concern (it's always top of people's stated priorities in the polls), the Government have said remarkably little of substance.
After Theresa May assumed the leadership of the Party in the summer of 2016, it took her an eternity to set out her thoughts on Britain's future relationship with the EU. It was a good speech but there's been little follow up. Boris Johnson's Telegraph article was only shocking because nobody else had attempted what was a very good argument - but one that was common in the referendum.
The most we get now is ad hoc briefings to selected media outlets about the status of the talks and boringly reassuring public comment that everything should be OK in the end. In the last week or two we've seen some public finger pointing by senior Cabinet Ministers about the EU's intransigence. But for the voters, who don't follow every twist and turn in daily events, and only notice significant interventions, this all amounts to one great vacuum. This means that the regular negative briefings given by EU officials and their offices have at least shaped British elite thinking on the issue. Things don't look good.
Peter Kelner has suggested that we might be reaching a turning point in the polls - when voters' nerves shift the polls towards a remain position. I don't think that's right - yet - although clearly it wouldn't take much to flip the electorate in that direction given the closeness of the actual referendum.. The pro-Brexit vote - those that stand by their 2016 vote - has remained very hard to date.
More likely, I think, is that people are going to start blaming the Government for badly handling the negotiations and, from leave voters' point of view, from bungling a great opportunity. This will be bad for the Brexit process, but it'll be terminal for the Conservatives. They're already consistently (and narrowly) trailing in the polls and one of the things propping them up is the contrast people are making between their basic competence (Manchester aside) and Corbyn's Labour chaos.
The Government needs to do three things in communicating with voters on Europe and the Brexit process. Firstly, they need to take up Boris Johnson's visionary approach to explaining Britain's European and general foreign policy strategy. It's vital that people understand what Britain's end goals are so they are able to contextualise the inevitable ups and downs (and there'll be many downs) of the negotiation and exit process. The need for this has been there from Day One of Theresa May's premiership.
Secondly, they should be far more open on a practical level about what they're trying to achieve in the talks. Clearly, a sector by sector explanation would be dull and would pass over the heads of most people. But an explanation of red lines and positive aspirations would show people they had a plan and were desperately trying to achieve the right outcome for Britain. At present, while that's obviously what negotiators are trying to do, the public simply can't see it.
Thirdly, they need to prepare their public communications for what will happen if there's no deal - or for when it simply looks like there'll be no deal (which in media terms will amount to the same thing). In short, crude as it is and will be, they need to prepare the ground to blame the EU.
What is not going to happen is that Juncker and Barnier say, "the British did all they could, it was our fault we couldn't get a deal." Obviously not. They'll be saying the British Government had no plan, no strategy, weren't on top of the detail and were poor negotiators. Pro-European media outlets like the FT will take their side and contrast the EU's supposed strategic genius (which strangely hasn't been visible anywhere else) with Britain's plodding amateurishness.
Perhaps because the Government has created a specific Brexit Department, they seem to be looking at the whole process as a discrete operation. But they need to start thinking about this - from a communications perspective at least - as a fundamental part of their domestic policy. They need to talk about it in the same way they'd talk about the economy, welfare or health.
In short, the Conservatives need to start banging on about Europe again. From now, all the time. If they don't there's a real danger that if talks continue to go slowly, and businesses start taking action to move some of their operations into the Eurozone, voters will blame them for what might look like an impending crisis.
The Tories understandably don't want to be defined by Europe. But that's looking less and less realistic. And as the talks continue to struggle onwards, regardless of any short term gains we might see soon, their reputation for relative competence - and relative competence is all that matters in voters' minds - is going to be eroded. And then they'll be done for.
Picture credit: Press Association.