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Five ways the Tories could lose the election Boris Johnson needs to understand what went wrong for Theresa May in 2017

Could Boris learn from Theresa's mistakes? Credit: Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty

Could Boris learn from Theresa's mistakes? Credit: Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty

September 30, 2019   6 mins

These are strange times. While Conservatives gather in Manchester for their conference, Parliament is still sitting in London, plotting. Meanwhile, in Bristol, I hope that Brenda’s agent (that’s vox pop Brenda, not Lady Hale) is negotiating a hefty appearance fee.

The ballot-box dodgers of Westminster can’t avoid the voters forever. An election is imminent and just how the Conservatives intend to win it will become clearer this week. Obviously the big issue will be Brexit — and, in particular, the Remain Parliament’s attempt to force Boris into breaking his promise to get us out by 31 October.

I’ll leave it to others to speculate as to the manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres of the next month; I’d rather focus on that obscure branch of politics that specialists call ‘everything-else-apart-from-Brexit’.

The 2017 general election, let’s not forget, was also supposed to be a Brexit election – but in the end it had as much to do with social care, housing and, er, fox hunting. It, too, began with the Conservatives streets ahead and Labour in crisis. Again, that’s not how it finished.

Unlike previous shock results — 1992 or 2015 — there was no blaming the pollsters. Their polls may not have been perfect, but the support they showed for Theresa May at the outset of the campaign was no illusion.

The peculiar timing of the general election (which took place on 7 June) meant a super-long campaign period featuring the already scheduled local elections on 4 May. These provided some real results against which to test the polls. Sure enough, the Tories did well… gaining 563 councillors and overall control of 11 councils. Even more significant were the results of the metropolitan mayoral elections: Conservative candidates triumphed in the West Midlands and Teesside. Surely this was proof that May’s message of “an economy that works for everyone” was making in-roads into Labour territory.

But then the polls turned — picking up a genuine, rapid and devastating shift in public opinion. If he is to have any chance of winning a majority in the forthcoming contest, Boris Johnson needs to understand what went wrong last time.

So, here they are, the top five screw-ups made by May and her team — and how not to screw-up again:

1. Don’t mess with a change message

As I’ve said before, in every British general election since the banking crisis, the ‘change’ candidates have made the biggest impact. In 2010, that was Cameron (plus a brief eruption of Cleggmania); in 2015, it was Nigel Farage (even if the UKIP surge happened to work in Cameron’s favour); and in 2017, it was Jeremy Corbyn.

The irony of the snap election is that it was Theresa May who started off as the change candidate — the purveyor of Nick Timothy’s reformist, anti-establishment ‘Erdington Conservatism’. But, inexplicably, the message was switched to one of continuity; “strong and stable” was the endlessly repeated refrain. Then, following the great manifesto debacle, they had her utter the undying words “nothing has changed”, while in the process of announcing a u-turn. The ineptitude was really quite impressive:  a double backflip of message mismanagement.

Johnson will achieve much the same effect if he implements the Benn Act, and goes to Brussels to beg for an extension. He will be sunk if he does it, and must resign before he’s forced to. After all, it’s not as if he’s in power now. Better fighting the next election as a defiant Leader of the Opposition than as a no-change Prime Minister.

2. Avoid men on horses

Through the botched manifesto was a disaster for Mrs May, it wasn’t where it all started going wrong.

No, that happened a few days before, when she stated her support for foxhunting and promised parliamentary time for a vote on its re-legalisation. It was one of the few Tory pledges that got noticed by the public, which was unfortunate given how how much they hated it. It was a gift to Labour and their ‘same old Tories’ line of attack. Nothing says ‘same old Tory’ like a posh man on horseback riding off to kill something.

Boris Johnson is our second Old Etonian Prime Minister in the space of a decade. Yet another member of an over-privileged, over-represented social class. However, such is the nature of his personality that his background seems no more than just one of his many quirks. To many voters, he’s not posh, he’s the one-and-only Boris.

He’s getting away with it, as he so often does. However, he shouldn’t under-estimate the power of symbols. Whether one likes it or not, fox hunting is a potent signifier of the oldest of old orders — one that was overthrown by democracy and to which most voters are atavistically hostile.

3. Remember the ‘rentquake’

In the aftermath of the shock election result, pundits and pollsters scrabbled for explanations. A favourite theory was the ‘youthquake’ – the idea that young voters turned out in force to vote for Corbyn.

In some constituencies, those such as Canterbury and Sheffield Hallam, the student vote certainly made a difference. However, psephologists such as Matt Singh, argue that the  ‘differential turnout’ that really made the difference was among the tenants of private landlords. This is a group of voters that in earlier decades would have expected to become home owners – but now find themselves priced off the housing ladder.

Having inherited a useless housing policy from Cameron and Osborne, May had no hope to offer them, which is why they turned so decisively to Corbyn and his promises of rent controls and a council house building programme. If the Conservative idea of a ‘property owning democracy’ is an impossible dream, people won’t vote for it.

What can Boris Johnson do to reach out? He can tell them that socialist housing policy has always been anti-ownership and pro-ugly architecture. But he also needs to present a positive alternative — affordable, high-quality housing available where the jobs are.

That, of course, depends on not letting greedy speculators extract all the value every time planning permission is granted for development. Merely granting permission more often is not enough. The Conservatives face a choice: they can either take on the ‘landed interest’ or do without the next generation of Conservative voters.

4. Beware black swans!

An under-appreciated fact about the 2017 election is that the Conservative strategy succeeded. Its objective was to recruit ex-UKIP and other Leave voters and that’s exactly what happened, up to a point. While David Cameron won  just 36.9% of the vote in 2015, Theresa May pushed that up to 42.4% — despite the manifesto debacle and her abysmal performance on the campaign trail.

The reason why she gained votes but lost seats is that Jeremy Corbyn did an even better job of boosting his party’s vote share – from 30.4% to 40.0%. The Conservatives were undone by a ‘black swan’ event outside of their strategic considerations. The remote, but extremely consequential, possibility that Corbyn might excel at uniting non-Tory voters (and inspire them to turn out) was clearly not anticipated.

For all the sophisticated micro-messaging that digital technology allows, the first question one has to ask about a campaign strategy is not “how do we fine tune it?”, but “what external factors could blow it up?”

I’m not predicting an exact replay this time round. Labour, as well alienating Leave-voting working class supporters, is also less likely to consolidate the Remain vote. The Lib Dems are back and making progress with Remainers; while the Greens, who were squeezed hard in 2017, have a new lease of life too.

However, this presents Boris with a new bank of potential black swans. Widespread tactical voting is one risk; a wholesale realignment of liberal Tory voters with the Lib Dems is another. He must be careful not to barrel around like Matteo Salvini in a blond wig. Not only would this mobilise Remain voters against him, it would put off a lot of Leave voters too — who are not the crude populists that some people imagine them to be.

5. Bring us sunshine

Last week was not the Prime Minister’s finest hour. However exaggerated and hypocritical the accusations made against him, however frustrated he must feel by his opponents’ tactics, he must not let his mood darken.

I think it’s fair to say we weren’t expecting a rip-roaring performance from Theresa May at the last election. We knew her as a no-nonsense sort of politician, someone to quietly and competently get on the job. Even so, her utter lack of spark on the campaign trail came as a shock. A glumbucket performance from Boris Johnson — or, yet worse, an actively nasty one — would be just as disastrous if not more so.

Unlike Theresa May in 2017 (who the public had never really ‘met’ before), we already know Boris Johnson — or, rather, we know what we like and don’t like about his public persona. Those who might vote for him expect to be entertained, perhaps uplifted, by him. A mean and bitter Boris would be an even bigger letdown than the Maybot was last time, with consequences to match.

It is right, indeed essential, for the Prime Minister to stick by his promises. He must stand resolute in the face of what is thrown at him. But hitting back and lashing out does not reinforce his position. If he prevails, it will be through grace and good humour — and this must go not just for his own conduct, but that of the whole campaign: the manifesto, the party political broadcasts, the social media messaging, everything. It must inspire hope and optimism.

Brexit, whatever one thinks of it, is all the long hard slog that we need right now; so let the rest of the ‘offer’ be something the whole country can look forward to.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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