The second in a series of weekly General Election briefing notes from Lodestone.
Theresa May is often described as a ‘cautious’ politician. She weighs her options, we are told, engaging forensically with the evidence before arriving at a decision. That is true up to a point. But, as described in these notes before, there is another side to May – an altogether bolder, braver instinct competes for her attention. It was on display when she told the Conservative Party, to its face, that it was seen as ‘nasty’. She showed it again when she insisted to steely-faced, shocked police officers that their culture of corruption and closed-ranks had to change. And it reared its head this week, too, as she stood at her prime ministerial lectern and demanded that the officials of the EU cease their ‘interference’ in the UK’s election.
The context for this unusual intervention is complex. In part, it was an honest and enraged response to the one-sided briefings of Jean-Claude Juncker and/or allies of a Downing Street dinner on Brexit. The EU Commission President let it be known that he had found May to be ‘in a different galaxy’ on the detail of our forthcoming exit negotiations and that he had left the meeting ‘more sceptical’ about the prospects of success than when he arrived. This partial and bitchy account caused genuine consternation in Number 10, where leaks of any sort are verboten. The statement also served another useful purpose – it gave the press something to write about for once. The anger of lobby journalists, plodding around the country after Mrs. May only to be locked in rooms and denied the chance to ask questions, is real and dangerous. Open mockery of the Prime Minister’s mantra of ‘strong and stable Government’ may not do her too much harm in the medium term, but you alienate political journalists en masse at your peril. In the end, they need copy or else they will find something with which to stitch you up. On Wednesday, May gave them a story. It will hold them off, for a bit.
May has also lost a number of close and trusted staffers recently – with Katie Perrior, her Head of Communications, choosing not to stay for the campaign along with her press secretary, Lizzie Louden – that could spell trouble for Number 10 further down the line. This is partly a product of there being too many cooks, with Crosby-Textor in town and both of May’s co-Chiefs of Staff playing significant roles in media management. But Perrior in particular will be missed for her clear-sighted understanding of the Prime Minister’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to communication.
But May has a canny, political eye on her General Election arithmetic – particularly on UKIP voters and what they will choose to do in June. With Paul Nuttall in tweed-clad free-fall, the Eurosceptic party is lacking both candidates and a rationale for existing in the wake of Brexit. What better way to cement her status as the Boudicca of Brexit – and clean up with UKIP voters across Labour’s Northern heartlands – than to declare open war on Brussels and its bureaucrats? If she is to win a majority significantly bigger than she has now, May will need Ukippers to ‘come home’ to her party.
So far, so positive for the PM. But there are dangers here too. Our negotiating partners have been startled by the ferociousness of May’s attack on them. They believe there is a material difference between a spot of mischievous leaking and the Prime Minister’s stern, public accusations. There is a real risk that the bad feeling caused by this spat will linger long into the Summer and Autumn, poisoning further our discussions over the sticky question of what our exit bill will be.
Meanwhile, Labour have continued to push a policy-focused campaign this week – with mixed results. There is little left to be said about Diane Abbott’s multi-car, motorway smash-up of an announcement on police numbers – it was awful and it was made worse by the arrogant way in which she attempted to brush off both criticism and inconvenient facts. But leaving aside the presentation, for now, there is no denying that investing in extra police numbers is a vote winner. The same can be said for recruiting more nurses and paying them better, and for funding schools and free school meals – all Labour policies, all costed (to a point). The Corbyn team believe that these well-tested, well-received policies will – once the public hear about them – get Labour back in the game and that the swathes of voters who have abandoned the party will come home in time for the vote. It is certainly the case that the Tory lead has narrowed over the last week, as election neutrality rules have obliged the BBC and other broadcasters to cover Labour policy. But it is difficult to see how a recovery on the scale required can be achieved in the time available. Watch out for the result of the hyper-marginal Mayoral election in the West Midlands later today for a taster of whether this strategy is working, but early local election results from Wales and the West of England do not look promising.
Unlike Corbyn and May, Tim Farron isn’t asking people to ‘come home’, he is asking them to take a holiday. Liberal, Remainer Tory? Come camp out in the Lib Dem hostel for homeless voters. Same goes for itinerant Blairites and wandering social democrats. It’s a big tent that Farron is trying to pitch, but then again he believes there are plenty of political refugees desperate for a spot of shelter.
If Theresa May can persuade UKIP voters in the North and in Wales to ‘come home’ to the Conservative Party she will achieve a landslide. May will feel vindicated in this strategy by today’s local election results, which have seen a complete UKIP collapse. In Lincolnshire – one of England’s most Eurosceptic counties – the reduced UKIP vote share has transferred almost completely to the Tories. If Corbyn can tempt Labour voters who have fled the nest to return, he might save his party from decimation. But they had both better keep an eye on Farron and the Liberal Democrats who, like all the best estate agents, are selling folk a lifestyle rather than just bricks and mortar.
Unlike Corbyn and May, Tim Farron isn’t asking people to ‘come home’, he is asking them to take a holiday. Liberal, Remainer Tory? Come camp out in the Lib Dem hostel for homeless voters. Same goes for itinerant Blairites and wandering social democrats. It’s a big tent that Farron is trying to pitch, but then again he believes there are plenty of political refugees desperate for a spot of shelter.Back to Insights