George Pascoe-Watson: The PM is doing the general election her way

Written by George Pascoe-Watson on 4 May 2017 in Opinion

Her refusal to play the normal game of 'retail politics' is proving to be a key selling point for Theresa May.


Theresa May has become the Frank Sinatra of political leadership – I’ll do it my way.

Cabinet ministers who gathered before their weekly audience with Theresa May failed to spot a giveaway clue that she was about to call a general election. An enormous flat screen TV had been installed at one end of the Cabinet table. No-one noticed it.

Only chairman Sir Patrick McLoughlin knew in advance, and he a day earlier. There was no mention of the election on the agenda and so Mrs May made her shock decision known at the start of the meeting. The TV screen was so ministers could watch from the Cabinet room as she made her historic announcement from the steps of number 10. But bizarrely, they watched an internet “feed” of the event from the internet with her in the room, moments after she’d delivered the statement.

We learn a lot from this, and from the events of recent days. There’s a Theresa May phenomenon sweeping the country and her own party. She’s admired by voters of all colours. And she’s admired for dancing to no one’s tune – only her own.

It’s an extraordinary turnaround from the days when Blair, Brown and Cameron reacted to every focus group and trend. Mrs May decided – long ago – that her winning ground his being herself, despite the demands on her to be a media star. Her discipline is phenomenal. Keeping so many people at the heart of government in the dark is only possible if secrecy is utmost.

Many observers and ministers have long taken the view that her “my way” style of management will end in tears. But the opposite appears to be happening. People who have trod the streets with her in recent weeks say voters of all ages up and down the country respect her in a way that even charmer David Cameron couldn’t achieve.

And that goes for Labour and LibDem supporters, too. They admire her refusal to play the normal game of “retail politics” begun by Mr Blair 23 years ago and aped by his successors.
Indeed, in a world of Donald Trump’s incessant Tweeting, Mrs May’s relative silence is amplified all the more.

In Chesterfield, a Labour-voting couple told the Premier they wanted her to do the best for Britain in the negotiations over Brexit. The Labour voter who berated LibDem leader Tim Farron in the street this week announced he was lending Mrs May his vote. Not because he’s a Conservative, but because he believes she alone has the power to get the best deal for Britain.

Welsh seats like Gower, Brecon and Vale of Clwyd have all given Mrs May the same feedback. She’s popular without trying to be popular. This explains the Conservative general election strategy. Leadership versus shambles. She’s making speech after speech without mentioning her own party. And to cap it all, she’s prepared to keep people in the dark and then emerge, like a deadly submarine, to fire a deadly payload at the enemy.

No one could quite believe that a British PM would stand on the streets of Number 10 and accuse EU politicians and Commission bureaucrats of interfering in a UK general election. As Channel Four’s peerless Gary Gibbon revealed, such an act has not happened for over a century. But nothing’s off Mrs May’s agenda if she thinks it’s the right thing to do.

She didn’t need to take aim at the EU for the votes, frankly. She’s on course to win a three figure Commons majority. But she has grown increasingly annoyed at the bullying from Brussels and beyond. And she knew she had a moment on the Downing Street steps having gone to The Queen on Tuesday morning.

The intention had been to announce the formalities had taken place and the battle was on. But instead, she chose to launch a broadside at some of those with whom she will be negotiating over the coming months and years.

The Sun and the Daily Mail both showered her in praise in today’s editorials. Standing up for Britain – and herself – will undoubtedly cement that sense of leadership and respect in voters’ minds.
MPs and ministers with relatively small majorities around the 5,000 mark worked tirelessly in 2015 to hold or take their seats. This time around it’s markedly different. Many of them are quietly confident and have been assigned to flood Labour marginal seats instead to help turn them Tory blue.

The Lib Dem machine was caught off guard. Mr Farron never had the time to plan for this election and as a result, is limited in what it can do. Only seats in Greater London will feel the LibDem love, meaning a great escape for Conservatives who took their seats in the West Country under Mr Cameron’s reign.

Of course, many of her new intake will be loyal to her. They will all remember who was commander-in-chief when they landed their seats. And those who take their seats from Labour – as Jeremy Corbyn reads his party its last rites – will forever know it was May’s Way which got them over the line.


About the author

George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications and former political editor of The Sun.

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