The Conservative election campaign is proving a bit of a mess. The central message, pitting Theresa May’s “strong and stable leadership” against Jeremy Corbyn’s “coalition of chaos”, has been undermined by a spectacular U-turn over social care and then obscured by the appalling terror attack in Manchester, which all but wiped the election from the airwaves for a week. No wonder that the press is now reporting a “relaunch” of Mrs May’s bid for No 10 and that a commanding 20-point opinion poll lead has halved in a matter of a fortnight.
So what has gone wrong? First, the presidential approach has not entirely worked out. May is not a natural campaigner, lacking the charisma, imagination and oratorical skills to shoulder the burden alone. The heavy emphasis on “Theresa May’s team” and the parallel erasure of the “Conservative” brand and the Cabinet, might have worked if she had shown more flair for being the party’s sole advocate. But she is too buttoned-up for such a role and meanwhile Corbyn, while surrounded by chaos (think Diane Abbott’s interventions, the leaked manifesto, running over a cameraman’s foot, and repeated reminders of his sympathy for terrorist groups), has looked more comfortable on the stump where he is feted by his thousands of adoring young leftists. The Tooting Popular Front has never looked in better shape.
May’s hasty U-turn over social care – which follows similar inversions over national insurance and the timing of the election – has dented her claim to be a safe pair of hands capable of seeing through the tough Brexit negotiations that start two weeks after polling day. Her left leaning manifesto, with its anti-business tone, its lack of any electoral sweeteners, its anti-Thatcher rhetoric and its faith in the power of the State, has done little to fire up the Tory base. The social care plan, striking directly at older, middle class Tory supporters, has gone down badly on the doorstep. May needs the votes of many of the country’s 12 million pensioners and her threat to their legacy has weakened her central electoral powerbase.
It sounds crass to mention it, but the political ramifications of the Manchester atrocity are mixed. The horrendous targeting of young concert-goers halted the damaging focus on the social care blunder – and led Corbyn astray with his offensive suggestion that British foreign policy has given justification to Islamist terrorists – but it also interrupted any plans the Conservatives might have had to develop their pitch to voters.
Hence today’s relaunch as May tries to pull the argument back onto her chosen ground that she needs a substantial mandate from the British people to secure a good deal from Brexit and to ensure that the country prospers from the opportunities it will bring. But to make political mileage from Brexit, May and her team need to do far more to expose the incoherence of Labour’s approach to the forthcoming negotiations, in particular its refusal to set a target for immigration and its willingness to do a deal at any price.
A similar demolition job is needed on Corbyn’s economically illiterate tax and spending plans, which promise the earth based on “modest” increases in taxes on high earners and companies.
Of course, this is not the first time the Tories have lost a campaign but still secured a handsome victory on polling day. Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 campaign was marked by a spectacular wobble triggered by a rogue poll that led her to sideline then party chairman Norman Tebbit and bring in others to run the final days of the push for power. She won by a majority of 100. John Major in 1992 was commonly thought to have lost the campaign badly to Neil Kinnock (hence the premature Labour victory ‘rally’ in Sheffield) but the Grey Man emerged victorious.
Mrs May remains on course to win comfortably on June 8. What comes afterwards seems more problematic.
(Image: John Chapman)