James Frayne: Why Theresa May is itching to attack Jean-Claude Juncker and co

Written by James Frayne on 3 May 2017 in Opinion

We shouldn't be surprised if she soon starts repeating Juncker's name hourly on the campaign trail.

First the prime minister said she will be a "bloody difficult woman" to Jean-Claude Juncker during Brexit talks. Now she has gone further by accusing European politicians of making "threats" against Britain to try to influence the general election result.

Theresa May opted against namechecking the European Commission president in her speech today. But by the end of this election campaign, don't be surprised if Theresa May chalks up more attacks on Juncker than Jeremy Corbyn. For Juncker offers Conservative election strategists something that Corbyn doesn't: a powerful and arrogant opponent that might get people off their backsides and into polling booths.

Fundamentally, this election is a giant turnout operation for the Conservatives. Scotland aside, there's no great job to be done to persuade swing voters, as the electorate have largely made up their mind: they prefer the Conservatives to Corbyn's shambolic Labour Party. The challenge is all about persuading people to come out and vote, when the overall result seems assured.

May was right to frame this election around Brexit - and the need to secure a big majority to strengthen her hand in negotiations. While there are of course other factors in play in a general election, the Conservatives need to inject a sense of urgency into the campaign. Given that she can't suggest credibly that Corbyn could win, it makes sense to ramp up the issue of Europe. How else can they ensure people actually vote?

And this is where Juncker comes in handy for May. The EU has chosen to put the fate of Europe's future in Juncker's hands - extraordinary as it is - and he in turn has chosen to take an extremely confrontational approach towards Britain in our exit negotiations. Not only is his policy position hostile, his rhetoric is aggressive and he seems unconcerned in the extreme about sensitive leaks.

While there are signs that some in the pro-EU media are wondering whether Juncker's behaviour has gone too far, there are plenty of others in Britain that will be cheering him on - determined to prove that Britain made a mistake to vote leave. Theresa May won't therefore be short of coverage which she can respond to. She will have many chances to stand up for Britain and to bolster her own personal leadership credentials. The worse Juncker and his team behave, the more resonant her call for a big majority for a stronger hand will be.

There's a limit to how aggressive May can and should be in response to Juncker. She will, after all, have to deal with him and the EU generally after the election. This is when the really important work will begin. However, she is handling it well so far - with a mix of good humour and determination. She should continue in this vein. That said, such is Juncker's behaviour that it's possible Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron (assuming he wins) step up and take his place.

We're a way off Election Day and much can happen. Just as the Conservatives made a last moment shift to attack the SNP in 2015, so they might take a similarly late shift this time. But, as it stands now, Juncker provides an opportunity to rally voters in a way that an irrelevant Corbyn can't. Conservative strategists will be praying for more hostile briefings in coming days.

May is sticking tightly to a campaign script. "Strong and stable leadership" is becoming a campaign cliche in the same way "long-term economic plan" did a few years ago. We shouldn't be surprised if she soon starts repeating Juncker's name hourly on the campaign trail. The more people that know his name, strategists will believe, the better.



Picture by: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment.

About the author

James Frayne is director of the communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, the go-to guide to consumer and citizen mobilisation. He was previously director of policy at Policy Exchange.

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