When you ask for directions in some remoter parts of the U.K. the response you might get is an unhelpful “well, I wouldn’t start from here”. After a week of official campaigning for 2019’s Winter General Election, that’s how the two main parties feel too.
First up we had a pre-launch gaffe from Brexiteer sweetheart and Tory Cabinet Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg; who claimed that anyone with common sense would have ignored the advice of the fire brigade and fled Grenfell Tower. Rees-Mogg swiftly apologised but his insult was compounded by his colleague and brother in ERG arms – Andrew Bridgen – leaping to his defence and rubbing salt in grieving families’ wounds. Added to the forced resignation of the Welsh Secretary (over a rape trial scandal involving an associate) and the Prime Minister himself appearing not to know the contents of his own Brexit deal while addressing Northern Irish businesses and… well, you wouldn’t start from here.
Labour meanwhile are busy shedding big beasts and party stalwarts and selecting – in their stead – a stream of new, untested candidates with dodgy social media histories. The party has lost its Deputy Leader, who has resigned to spend more time in the gym and less time being yelled at by racists on the internet, and two former Labour MPs (Ian Austin and John Woodcock) are urging Labour voters to support Boris Johnson. Again, you wouldn’t start from here.
What all these issues have in common is that they confirm the public’s pre-existing biases. Voters already think that – for all their charms and positives – the Conservative Party lacks empathy, is less supportive of women and that its leader struggles with detail. This week’s scandals reinforce these doubts. Equally, the electorate worries that Labour isn’t the party it used to be, that its leader is a crank who associates with weirdos and that the movement lacks any real unity of purpose. This week won’t have reassured anyone on any of those fronts.
Until 2017, a rule of modern politics was that ‘the campaign doesn’t matter’. The received wisdom was that voters had already made up their minds before the starting gun on an election had been fired. By hounding the Tories from a 20 point lead to break even Corbyn proved that not to always be the case. But he and his party did that by pleasantly surprising voters – they were more competent and united (and less weird) than people expected. If next week and the week after that resemble the one we have just had then it is difficult to imagine that trick succeeding again. After all, there has been vanishingly little proper media coverage of the policies Labour has announced (on massive investment in public services and the abolition of the fiscal rules). Instead, it has felt like one of those week long specials that soap operas get to put on for their anniversaries – complete with a spectacular cull of the cast and quite a few cliff hangers.
All of which is good news for Jo Swinson and her ‘Remain Alliance’ – which has seen the Greens, Plaid and the Lib Dem’s stand aside for one another in sixty seats to increase each party’s chance of winning. It is true that the Lib Dems (and, perhaps, the Brexit Party) stand to gain from the messiness of the big two’s opening campaigns. But some liberal backers are worried that the team at the top of the party is too inexperienced – and already making too many mistakes – to really capitalise.
So, all to play for after week one. But one thing is clear. None of the major parties have yet mapped out a safe and agreed route to victory or managed to get the Sat Nav to repeat their key messages all the way home. They all look, instead, a little lost and in need of some direction.