It would be easy to argue that this is all about the Tories and what has been the most woeful election campaign since their last most woeful. That was back in 2015 when David Cameron spent every day in day-glo jackets making rash promises to the electorate until Lynton Crosby earned himself a knighthood by spotting that English voters react viscerally to the thought of the Scottish Nationalists decorating Westminster with tartan.
The Tories turned it around in 2015 and there’s no reason to think they won’t do the same this year, except the other narrative that’s run throughout this election isn’t about the Tories at all. It’s about how Labour have largely managed to minimise their strategic weaknesses.
Perhaps it’s by design but it’s most likely by luck. Ravaged by internal squabbling, with very little in the kitty to fight an election and none of the big names willing to fight their cause, Labour have found itself incapable of mounting a full court press in the media. The result is that they have fought a very low-key election and that has surprisingly worked to their advantage. The less we see of Labour, the better they appear to do in the polls. The result has been a political rope-a-dope with Labour allowing the Tories to punch themselves to exhaustion. Tories have dominated the headlines to the point that many old Labour voters, suddenly cut free from their temporary attachment to UKIP, have remembered why they so despise the Tories.
Much is always made of the fabled Tory campaign chest and how they’ve been able to buy up all the advertising on Google and Youtube. The irony is, of course, that the blanket coverage might well now be working against them. Every Tory ad that pops up on Youtube, delaying the requested video, makes another potential voter groan.
That’s not to say that Labour are having a great election. The Tories scored their biggest points thanks to the afro that Diane Abbott once wore and more calamities no doubt await them down the road. What saves Labour is that the Tories appear even more prone to calamity. If the Tories aren’t tripping over their own shoelaces, they seem to be slipping around in their socks. Labour sense an open goal whenever Michael Fallon appears on TV, followed by Boris and a few more of the foot-in-the-mouth brigade. Meanwhile Theresa May might well have proved herself to be the Labour Party’s greatest asset, appearing remarkably flat footed in an election that it was thought she could never lose.
May has spent so much time trying to appear strong and stable that she has done anything but look either strong or stable. The Tory mistakes have been largely self-inflicted. It might seems unfair — and slightly misogynistic — to mention the Prime Minister’s hair but it was always fair game to talk about George Osborne when he went for the full ‘Julius Caesar’ and it’s part of the national debate whenever Boris has a trim. It was odd, therefore, that May chose an election to change a look that helped her during the Conservative leadership campaign. Throughout the Sky News debate, earlier this week, May looks particularly severe and her new flatter hairstyle seemed to symbolise her flat-lining campaign. Trivial? Perhaps but these things matter. May projected confidence in neither herself nor her campaign.
All this is, of course, a long way from where we began. The supposedly hapless Corbyn, unable to wear a suit without making it look Oxfam-ready, has been surprisingly transformed into a softly spoken man with a message loaded with compassion and light on sound bites. We knew already that the public are tired of politics and enjoy the appeal of the anti-politics politician. It’s just surprising that Corbyn is appealing on those terms. His weakness was always that he the kind of backbencher never happier than when making deliberately provocative statements about Hamas at esoteric fringe meetings. That history could (and probably will) come back to hurt him but that lack of polish also looks surprisingly effective when set against the Tories’ high spending, hard hitting, take no prisoners (especially when they own their own homes) assault.
It sets us up for a fascinating final week.
That week begins tonight, with Corbyn agreeing to attend the ‘leaders’ debate that will still be missing one Tory leader. On balance, May’s absence is probably the more sensible call and it should hemorrhage her fewer votes than had she put in a bad performance. Corbyn, meanwhile, is taking a risk but the opportunity is simply too good for him to let it pass. If he does well, he can argue that he’s committed to the democratic process, as well as committed to meeting real voters. He could well emerge looking stronger, having delivered his message to a prime time BBC audience. There are potential pitfalls but, as always, it will depend on the kind of mistake he makes. Too much was probably made of his appearance on Women’s Hour on Radio 4 on Tuesday. It was the kind of error that gets overblown by politicos; the British public having a fairly pragmatic attitude and know that the numbers game cheap journalism that sees education ministers asked basic maths questions or foreign ministers to name the capital of Bolivia.
What can hurt Corbyn, however, is what has hurt him from the start. The press have a full week to lay into the Labour leader and it’s hard to believe that he will defy political wisdom and emerge unscathed by next seven days of headlines about the IRA, terrorism, or high tax Britain. On the Sky News debate, he deflected some of the issues quite well: his emphasis on peace processes will have negated in the minds of many causal viewers much of the criticism directed to him about the IRA and Hamas. However, they still remain potential pitfalls, as does his stance on nukes. These things are finely balanced. If the media go after him too hard, they can begin to empower him. The last thing they need is the media turning Corbyn into a martyr in the name of democracy.
If he continues playing it calmly, however, he poses a problem for May. It is remarkable how far her standing has fallen in the past month. Is she hoping to limp across the finishing line or will she attempt to grab the initiative? Her problem is that it’s not entirely clear if she understands which initiative to grab. Her credibility has been shattered by a staggeringly poor manifesto; a document of such astonishing arrogance it seemed like the Tories believed that they couldn’t lost the election so decided that they’d make governing easier by putting all their bad news front and centre. They are now in a tricky place. In all likelihood the Tories will still win – and I find it hard to believe that their majority won’t be increased – but with Corbyn willing to take a chance and appear in tonight’s debate, Labour are looking to get onto the front foot and push on into the final week. Corbyn might get some real momentum (not the baggy hemp t-shirt real ale drinking kind) and that should rattle the Tories who have a problem similar to the one they faced in 2015. They need a new message and they need it soon, and there’s nobody like the Scottish Nationalists around to help them this time.