The first week of the election campaign closes today, with Parliament prorogued and candidates hastily selected in almost all seats for the main parties. Theresa May used her final PMQs of the season to hammer home her core message, that Britain faces a choice between stability under her leadership or chaos under Corbyn’s. This is a taste of things to come. May has a natural instinct to caution and an aversion to going off script, with Sir Lynton Crosby re-ensconced at CCHQ as campaign manager, this disposition will only be reinforced. Expect message discipline to reach dispiriting new heights in the coming week – for the PM, at least.

Running concurrently, of course, we will have variations on the famous ‘dead cat’ strategy – with Cabinet Ministers and outriders wheeled out to make outlandish statements that keep this election race focused unremittingly on the personality and politics of Jeremy Corbyn. This week saw two classics of the genre. First, Sir Michael Fallon – Defence Secretary and ‘Minister for the Today Programme’ – claimed that Corbyn would be an existential threat to our national security (an intervention that was accompanied by an attack video featuring the Labour Leader’s various and occasionally eccentric pronouncements on the matter). Next, it was the Foreign Secretary’s turn. Boris, a master of deceased felines and keen pupil of Crosby’s, penned an article describing Jeremy Corbyn as a “mutton headed mugwump”. His witty ditty earned him a ten minute slot on the Today Programme and led to much debate over whether he had drawn his inspiration from Roald Dahl, William S. Burroughs or from an obscure 19th century political controversy in the USA. Whatever the truth, he succeeded in making the morning’s news a jolly discussion of what type of awful the Labour Leader is – Boris and his mentor will have been thrilled. Cats, famously, have nine lives so we can expect approximately seven more of these diversions – one for each remaining week of the campaign, funnily enough.

Meanwhile, Labour sought this week to explain their position on Brexit. Keir Starmer gave a much-trailed ‘landmark’ speech laying out – for once and for all – what Labour’s approach would be. He did not achieve the cut-through or the clarity he had hoped for. The Labour Party faces an absolutely tortuous dilemma on Brexit – with their core alliance of metropolitan liberals and Northern workers riven on the subject. Starmer’s plan is inoffensive enough – leaving more areas open for negotiation than May will (such as on membership of the Customs Union), guaranteeing EU citizens the right to remain in the UK and taking a nuanced, flexible approach to the European Courts of Justice. All of these are perfectly reasonable positions, although by no means uncontroversial. But snappy it ain’t and it still fails to answer the fundamental disagreement within the Labour coalition about whether it is a party for in or a party for out. We are unlikely to see Starmer’s detailed plan on many leaflets – expect, instead, London and metropolitan MPs to promise their electors that they will ‘stop Theresa May’s hard Brexit’ while candidates elsewhere stay as quiet as possible on the subject.

The Labour Party’s central machinery – and much emotional energy – was devoted this week to the thorny question of selections. A raft of sitting MPs, many in winnable seats, have declined to stand again and so the party’s NEC set about carving these up between candidates for the Corbynite Left and those who are inclined more to the traditions of the centre. Yet again, the hard left found themselves outmanoeuvred on matters of party management, high-profile pro-Corbyn candidates from his leadership campaigns were snubbed whilst a raft of ‘moderates’ found themselves picked for plum positions. The faction around Corbyn is often accused of being more interested in power within their party than they are power in the country; this may be true, but they are spectacularly bad at achieving even that more limited ambition.

The Liberal Democrats are hoping that the unusual optics of this election, combined with a collapse in Labour support (Labour privately expects to lose around one hundred seats) will give them a platform for accelerated recovery. They may be proven correct as Remain voters flock to their clear alternative on Brexit. But the Lib Dems have demonstrated this week an ongoing lack of discipline and command and control that may hurt them in this long campaign. Whatever one’s views on Tim Farron’s private beliefs on gay sex, his handling of the story has been poor. And reselecting a man accused of grotesque anti-semitism in Bradford was a foolish error, particularly given the hay that the Lib Dems have made at Labour’s expense over the Ken Livingstone controversy. Like UKIP (who so far in this election look like a spent and increasingly marginal force) the Lib Dems will find it hard to properly test and vet all of their candidates – expect more controversies to bubble up, blind-sighting the leadership.

With the countdown clock now ticking away, and candidates hitting the streets, the General Election proper starts this weekend. On the doorstep Labour candidates will talk about anything but Jeremy. The Lib Dems will rail against Brexit. And the Tories will be eyeing your cat with a glint in their eye….

Scores on the Doors:
  • Poll of Polls (Britain Elects; April 26) – Con 46; Lab 25.9; Lid Dem 10.9; UKIP 8.1; Grn 3.3
  • Bookies Odds (Ladbrokes GE Overall Majority) – Con Maj 1/10; No Overall Maj 7/1; Labour Maj 20/1; Lib Dem Maj 100/1; UKIP Maj 200/1
  • Quote of the Week: “I think we’ve been fairly clear all along.” Shadow Minister Paul Blomfield displays admirable message discipline on Europe.

Expect message discipline to reach dispiriting new heights in the coming week – for the PM, at least.

Running concurrently, of course, we will have variations on the famous ‘dead cat’ strategy – with Cabinet Ministers and outriders wheeled out to make outlandish statements that keep this election race focused unremittingly on the personality and politics of Jeremy Corbyn.

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