Jonathan Lomax: Get set for the nihilistic election
The narrowness of the Conservative strategy looks likely to leave us with a one-sided fight about leadership and an unenlightening debate about Brexit.
With last week’s dissolution of Parliament and local elections now behind us, it seems an auspicious time to look at what the initial skirmishes of the general election can tell us about the upcoming campaign.
The Conservative strategy is crystal clear – say as little as possible (other than ‘strong and stable leadership’, of course) while pointing to a big picture of Jeremy Corbyn. And thus far, it seems to be going swimmingly with an average poll lead approaching 20%, even before the campaign proper has hit its stride.
Despite the seemingly simple strategy, the Conservatives are taking no chances and have got the 2015 election band back together for one last tour – Lynton Crosby, Mark Textor and Jim Messina have all flown in for the election and Craig Edmonds and Tom Elder have returned to run the digital operation, hoping to replicate the 2015 formula of ultra-targeted Facebook ads in particular.
Pulled together by the able Stephen Gilbert, it’s an A-list team that any candidate would be pleased to have on their side. Expect ‘air war’ message discipline, perhaps even more than in a ‘normal’ election, with a difficult to track digital ground war bombardment.
It is clear there is also going to be a relentless focus on Theresa May as an individual. There was widespread sniggering early in David Cameron’s tenure as leader of the party when candidates started appearing on local election ballot papers tagged as David Cameron’s Conservatives.
Theresa May has taken this a step further, regularly appearing in front of backdrops that omit the word Conservative entirely, instead emblazoning her name in huge font across the stage. The post-election literature will no doubt reveal some of the polling that supports this move but it is presumably based on several factors.
In an election when you are trying to make the choice appear to be between two individuals, Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn, it makes obvious sense to push the name of the person on your ‘team’, particular as May polls so well personally. Perhaps as importantly, it is also possible that downplaying the Conservative brand will make it more palatable for former Labour voters to vote for local Conservative candidates, when framed as a choice between the two leaders.
There is one strange area of overlap between the Labour and Conservative campaigns, which is that both parties want people to see as much as possible of Jeremy Corbyn. The Corbyn allies that have transferred from the leader’s office over to the Southside party headquarters are convinced that the more the country sees of Mr Corbyn, the more it will like what they see. And it is true that Mr Corbyn looks far happier to be on the campaign trail than Mrs May – the consequence of a lifetime spent as an activist/campaigner who happened to be an MP. The Labour leader does seem to be one of the few senior politicians who genuinely prefers time outside Westminster.
But it is still far from certain whether the view of those around Corbyn has anything to do with research or fact – his polling in the ‘who would make the best Prime Minister’ litmus question is subterranean, regularly falling beneath ‘don’t know’. Labour candidates seem less sure too. I have already received four mailings from my sitting Labour MP, now candidate, and not one of them has mentioned the name Jeremy Corbyn – all of them have reiterated how ‘independent’ they are. Mr Corbyn was also been notable by his absence in the big metro mayor fights in the North West and West Midlands, which would be inconceivable if he was a proven vote winner. When Andy Burnham himself went AWOL from his own ‘victory celebration’ it made it clear what he thought of his party leader.
As the campaign kicked off there was some debate as to how the ‘Shadow Shadow Cabinet’ would deal with it – whether now the game was afoot they would feel obliged to call a truce with the Corbyn leadership and take part in the national battle. Interestingly, thus far there is no sign of that with many of the stronger moderate Labour media performers holed up in their own constituencies, leaving the hard-core Corbynistas to carry the fight nationally. Dianne Abbott and Dawn Butler have already shown the perils of that situation for the party and we can expect more of that as people tire during the campaign.
Scotland and Wales are going to be hugely interesting during this election, with the potential resurgence of the Conservatives in both countries a real talking point following their exceptional local election showing. Should Labour begin to lose its stranglehold on Wales, as it did so dramatically in Scotland in 2015, then the future for the party as a UK electoral force really will be looking bleak.
Other smaller parties will continue to fight for attention, with the Lib Dems in particular going into the election with some hopes of success. Tim Farron matches Corbyn for looking comfortable on the campaign trail and they also have the benefit of a clear Brexit position – a luxury not afforded to Labour. UKIP continues to collapse in the polls and it is inconceivable that they will match their 2015 vote tally. If, as looks likely, almost all those votes move over to the Conservatives a 100+ majority is certainly possible.
The narrowness of the Conservative strategy has the potential to make this a pretty nihilistic election. Labour will come forward with plenty of policies, but their leader will limit their cut-through. The Conservatives want to leave as much room for manoeuvre as possible after the election, so will seek to produce a manifesto that is as light as possible. What remains is a one-sided fight about leadership and a debate about Brexit that will reveal nothing we didn’t already know.
But the great thing about elections is that, however clear cut it looks from here, they are unpredictable things. Just ask David Cameron.
Jonathan Lomax is managing director and head of corporate affairs at MHP Communications. This article first appeared on the MHP website.
Picture by: Jack Taylor/PA Wire/PA Images