So what’s the story of this election campaign as it stutters into life this chilly Bank Holiday weekend? Is it the “strong and stable leadership” (copyright Sir Lynton Crosby) promised by Mrs May and code for “Corbyn for PM? You must be joking”? Is it hard Brexit versus the softer version? Is it the first flowering of Mayism, a new breed of Conservatism, positioned somewhere between Heathism and Thatcherism and most definitely not Cameroonism? Or is it a late chapter in the disintegration of the Labour Party, which 20 years ago swept all before it as it secured a Commons majority of 179?
Probably, a combination of all four. Certainly, as the polls confirm, Mrs May’s flinty but dutiful persona has struck a chord, with even a quarter of Labour supporters preferring her as Prime Minister to Corbyn. No surprise then that in the Labour heartlands of the Midlands and North being targeted by the Tories, it is her name and face to be seen on leaflets and placards, in marked contrast to Corbyn, who is being airbrushed out of Labour campaign material.
But the media, at least, will expect rather more from Mrs May and her party than repetition of Crosby’s carefully researched slogans. There are limits to the number of times you can put “strong and stable leadership” into a headline.
Brexit will feature but not dominate, if only because Labour offers no coherent alternative to the Prime Minister’s policy of hard, or as she prefers to say, clean Brexit. It is unable to say where it stands on the gritty matters of quitting the single market, the customs union, free movement of EU citizens, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Nor does it have a clear position on the outrageous demand by the EU for a divorce settlement of £50 billion as a pre-condition of negotiations about a free trade agreement (FTA).
May is not threatened by Labour over Brexit. In fact, the issue is likely to play into her hands, not least because of voices off from the Continent. The more the likes of Juncker (‘living in another galaxy) and Merkel (“Britain is delusional”) insult her, the more the British people will be inclined to swing behind her and deliver the crushing mandate she is seeking for the Brexit talks that won’t begin in earnest until the autumn. Brussels is praying for a Tory defeat, is the kind of headline calculated to stir up Britain’s pro-Leave majority.
As Barack Obama found with his “back of the queue” jibe, the public don’t take kindly to lectures from foreign potentates, and that especially applies to the French and the Germans.
True, Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats advocate the softest of Brexits, which to all intents and purposes would involve remaining within the EU, plus a second referendum on the final deal. But the mood of the country is for the Government to get on with the job of leaving, not complicate the issue with years of prevarication and uncertainty. Farron hopes to become the party of the Remainers, and he may pick up a few seats under this banner, but not enough to make any kind of difference.
As the headlines of the past few days have demonstrated, old-fashioned issues of tax and spend will never be far away from the campaign. May, anxious to repudiate the gimmicky, presentational politics of her flashy predecessor, is toying with the idea of scrapping the “triple lock” on pensions and abandoning pledges not to raise income tax, national insurance and VAT. But, as she has now signalled, these are more likely to be tweaked than chucked on the political scrapheap.
Her manifesto could prove of more interest to the headline writers. Her political strategy, of focusing her appeal on those who are neither rich nor poor, the so-called just about managing (JAMs) and her electoral strategy, taking the fight to an enfeebled Labour Party in its heartlands, are in synch. She may yet turn out to be a new kind of Conservative, one representing a break with the free-market philosophy of Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher believed “you cannot buck the market” and that government was the problem, not the solution. She set in train a deregulatory, free-enterprise, individualistic approach that despite the 13 years of Blair and Brown lingers to this day. May takes a different view: “People who are just managing, just getting by, don’t need a government that will get out of the way. They need an active government that will step up and champion the things that matter to them,” she said in January.
For 40 years at least, since the demise of Ted Heath, the Conservatives have paid lip service, at least, to the delights of small government. Now they have a leader attracted to an active, interventionist State. We have already been introduced to the idea of an industrial strategy (very Heathite) though it doesn’t seem to amount to much. An energy price cap, denounced by Cameron and Co when it was advocated by then Labour leader Ed Miliband, will be part of the manifesto pitch to the JAMs, along with other meddlesome schemes designed to curb boardroom excess.
No wonder Miliband took to Twitter last week to lampoon the May agenda as, “Marxist madness, anti-business, back to the 70s…”
But none of the above has the human drama to set the blood racing and the newspapers fulminating. For that, we will have to look to Labour and its hapless leader Jeremy Corbyn. As Dominic Lawson pointed out in a perceptive piece in The Sunday Times at the weekend, Corbyn is not bidding to defeat May and win the election for Labour (just as well, you might say). Instead, he is battling to maintain the hard Left’s grip over the Labour leadership and to ensure that when he goes (as he surely must soon) rule changes are in place to ensure the crown passes to one of his Momentum-backed henchmen.
Will he succeed? Back in the 1983 election, won by Thatcher with a majority of 144 and made famous by a manifesto dubbed the “longest suicide note in history”, the then leader Michael Foot, a far more considerable figure than Corbyn though with a similar dress sense, only narrowly survived the few weeks of the campaign. The giveaway was a spectacularly clumsy intervention by the party’s General Secretary, who announced to the press that the ruling National Executive Committee had met and decided that Foot was “still leader of the Labour Party”.
Does the same fate await Mr Corbyn?
(Image: Garry Knight)