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An election is more of a gamble than Boris Johnson seems to realise

Yes, some things will be different compared to the last election. But have the Conservatives really done enough to improve on their 2017 performance?

By Philip Cowley  

Conservative supporters run a risk pushing for a General Election now. Photo: PA

The election was difficult to justify. The Prime Minister, recently installed in office, turned out to be a poor candidate who struggled on the campaign trail. The campaign went on too long, week-after-week in which Labour chipped away at what had at the start seemed an unassailable poll lead. The Conservative manifesto proved unpopular. With an unprepared campaign organisation, the Conservatives lost the ground war to Labour’s energised mass membership. The Labour leader turned out to be more effective than many of his critics had expected and Labour’s manifesto went down well with voters. The attempt to crystallise the need for a Conservative government into a punchy slogan attracted ridicule. The electoral strategy of sweeping through English Midlands and Northern Leave-voting constituencies failed, and the party ended the election losing seats.

That, of course, was 2017. It’s not an exhaustive list of what went wrong for Theresa May, although it covers most of the key things.

The Brexit election

It is always dangerous for generals—especially armchair ones—to refight the last war, but with another election now likely within weeks there is a risk of a severe case of déjà vu.

True, this time the Prime Minister will be able to explain, in fairly simple language, why he is going to the polls. Ironically, the need for a bigger majority to legislate on Brexit was one of Theresa May’s motivations too, but here, as elsewhere, she struggled to articulate it.

The Johnson message—we need to get Brexit done; Parliament is stopping it happening—will be easier to articulate and has enough truth in it to land much better with voters.

Given what’s already been announced, it’s clear that this time around there will be no attempt to use the Conservative manifesto to engage with difficult societal issues, such as long-term residential care, from which there would be losers as well as winners.

And in Boris Johnson, the Conservatives probably have a better campaigner than Theresa May, even if that is a rather low bar.

The rest, however, seems moot.

Sweeties for all

For example, how much better has the Conservative campaign organisation become? When it comes to knocking on doors, we know that Labour’s grassroots will still be far more active. Will the Conservatives be able to make up for that in well-funded targeted campaigning? There have been repeated claims about the revamping of the Conservative machine, and it is almost by definition bound to be better prepared than in 2017—but how much better? It’s no good flooding money in now. Good campaigning takes years, of building up data and testing messages.

And while the Conservatives will presumably put forward an all-must-have-prizes manifesto, so will Labour. When researching The British General Election of 2017 I was told one story which I was unable to stand up and which therefore didn’t go in the book, and which I offer here merely as allegory: when Owen Smith ran against Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership, Smith announced a sizeable increase in capital spending; on hearing this, and in order to spike Smith’s guns, John McDonnell simply promised twice as much.

In a similar vein, the Conservative Party will never be able to out-sweetie Labour. And by attempting to do so, they risk under-cutting any message about the need for fiscal restraint. If there is suddenly plenty of cash around, why not invite—to misquote John Major—the Viv Nicholsons of British politics to spend it?

Enough time for mistakes

Given the dates being discussed, the 2019 election will be shorter than 2017, but not much shorter. Getting it done, do or die, and so on, all sound pretty banal slogans now—how will they sound after five weeks of campaigning? And while Boris Johnson is a better stump performer than Theresa May, I remain unconvinced he is quite as good on the stump—or in the television studio—as some of his supporters think. Nothing in the leadership election looked all that impressive, especially when he was put under pressure. There will be still be plenty of time for things to go wrong.

Perhaps the one thing that almost everyone got wrong in 2017 was to underestimate the extent to which voters are increasingly volatile and willing to switch parties, with the effect that more can change in the course of a campaign than used to be the case. Just because you have a double-digit lead at the beginning of the campaign does not mean you will have one at the end.

The Conservative electoral strategy looks remarkably similar to then, based on making advances in Labour-held Leave-voting seats. This failed last time, only for the Conservatives to be saved by some relative success in Scotland.

It is difficult to see Scotland riding to their safety this time, and they may well lose some seats there to the Lib Dems (and maybe a few in London?) Even to stand still in terms of seat numbers they will need to make decent advances into seats some of which have returned Labour MPs for 100 or so years.

Let’s just say this is ambitious—especially given that while the current Conservative poll lead is impressive, it is smaller than it was at the beginning of the 2017 campaign.

The rise of Farage?

And then there is the Farage-led Brexit Party, which was absent in 2017 when UKIP polled under 2 per cent. Barring any pacts or deals—something the Prime Minister explicitly ruled out during his campaign for the leadership of the party and which seems unlikely given things Nigel Farage has said—a Brexit Party polling even 10-12 per cent could do a lot of damage to Conservative chances.

There are, sure, dozens of other imponderables, and, yes, some of these things could work in the party’s favour. If voters are volatile, maybe they will swing towards the Conservatives. If there is a long campaign, maybe this will lead to Labour imploding rather than managing to stay united. Maybe Jeremy Corbyn will, second time round, not prove as effective a campaigner as in 2017 (although I suspect he will). And maybe anyway this is all old hat. Maybe the simplicity of the Conservative message this time, framed as the people against the elites, delivered by a competent figurehead, and mixed with many voters’ frustration about Brexit, will be enough for the party to storm to victory. And maybe, even if this is risky, it represents Boris Johnson’s best hope.

Maybe. But it is still far more of a gamble than some Conservative supporters seem to have realised.

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