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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.


His new book of cartoons, The Secret Lives of Monks, is now available from bookshops.


7 Comments on "It’s all about the Tories"

  1. Peter Kennedy | 1st June 2017 at 11:53 am | Reply

    Out of curiosity I did some reading and the capital of Bolivia situation is about as complicated as the Tel Aviv / Jerusalem issue. The constitutional capital is Sucre (once known as La Plata) but the government meet in the city of La Paz.

    No doubt all of the mandarins at the FCO will know this but I am quite sure that most politicians will just supply a blank stare if asked this question without access to Google.

  2. Thanks for this David. I am finding this General Election the most depressing I can ever remember. I watched the BBC debate last night and thought, are these the best we have. I think making this election all about Theresa May and her being strong and stable has been a mistake. Brexit is important but it seems this is another referendum on Brexit rather than about issues that concern many voters.

    I agree with you that her new haircut does her no favours and it looks severe and unwelcoming. After the Social Care fiasco she should have turned up for the debate last night .You just know Boris Johnson would have done. Her advisers obviously thought as you do she had more to lose than gain but it gives more ammunition to those who say she is weak and wobbly and if she cannot front it up with 6 others how will she do so in the EU negotiations with 26 others

    I imagine Jeremy Corbyn cannot believe how inept the Conservative campaign has been so far. Corbyn and John McDonnell have many skeletons in the cupboard regarding the IRA and links to terrorists but the public seem largely immune to this so far. I agree there has to be balance and you have to present positive reasons to vote Conservative not just bash Corbyn or Diane Abbott for her numeracy skills

    Labour have some populist policies like the removal of tuition fees, more money for the NHS, keeping the winter fuel allowance for all pensioners and the removal of zero hours contracts. Rather than banging on about Brexit all the time Theresa May needs to show why her policies will work and why Labours are pie in the sky .I believe up till now they have not done this and if she does not increase her majority on June 8th Theresa May could be in trouble.

  3. That’s a very good piece you’ve written David. I think May’s dictatorial style and closed circle approach always had the potential to catch her out in this campaign. Apparently the decision to call the election came as news to Tory HQ and most of the cabinet, there weren’t enough candidates on the lists to fill seats and I think it is now fairly clear they hadn’t even begun to think about a manifesto. When they did get round to writing a couple of policies they surely can’t have consulted about them, given almost every Tory was rowing back from the “dementia tax” within 24hrs. It was the NIC increase all over again.

    Contrast that with Labour, who while often being accused of being a shambles had expected an election in 2017 and begun to prepare as early as Autumn last year. By April they were said to have amassed £4 million in election funds and put the party on an election footing, they certainly seem to have at least prepared the gist of their manifesto. Corbyn has been surprisingly good, he’s clearly received coaching and it has paid dividends for him, his style of presentation is a million miles from where he was two years ago.

    Where has the cabinet been?. We are starting to see them now as May has begun to be seen as a liability rather than an asset but I can’t remember seeing Justine Greening, Chris Grayling, Liam Fox or Priti Patel previously and Phillip Hammond I think has only popped up once or twice. Do the Conservatives not have a transport or education policy?, it would seem that the answer is no, the entire plan has been to rely on Labour being awful and people being too scared to vote for them.

    Having said all that, if I was in the business of predicting these things I would see a 50-60 seat Tory majority, that is probably excellent news for Labour as my record on political betting is atrocious. There are some Labour policies which while on the face of it are popular could come back to bite them, but only if the Conservatives can manage to attack Labour on them. The corporation tax rise for instance will hit millions of contractors, tradespeople and micro businesses doing business under the limited company umbrella. These are middle income earners who labour have to attract to win the election and putting up their taxes 9% by the end of the parliament may not be the best way to do it. Likewise with the borrowing plans, where is the attack based on how much interest payments are already eating up out of the budget?, oh there isn’t one. STRONG AND STABLE, STRONG AND STABLE.

    I would also echo everything Paul says,it truly is depressing that we have to choose one of these people to run our country. It ought to be an obvious choice for me this election, but I am leaning towards spoiling my paper.

    • Thanks Rob. Really appreciate that. Not that I advocate anybody spoiling their paper but I understand what you mean. There’s a complacency about the Tories which, had anybody other than Corbyn been leading Labour, would have seen a landslide the other way. Something is wrong in our politics and perhaps it will need a shock to the system to get it back to normal.

      • Well that was turn up wasn’t it, did say Labour should have been celebrating when I predicted a decent Tory win. May got what she richly deserved and once the dust settles she ought to be ousted by the Conservatives, don’t see how she can lead the negotiations with the EU under the circumstances. The worst campaign I’ve seen in my lifetime, Owen Jones described it as “weird” last week, it was so surreal it was if it was designed to lose seats. Don’t know why tiny Tim Farron is looking so pleased with himself, lousy result for him under the circumstances. Labour MP’s need to have a good hard look at themselves, if they hadn’t spent two years mercilessly kicking their own leader they would be in government this morning. Brightest news of the day for me (apart from Clegg losing his seat) was the failure of the SNP which makes the prospect of our country breaking up that bit more distant.

        • I agree, Rob. A *very* odd election all around and I suppose the headlines should really be about the Tory % share of the vote and the collapse of the smaller parties. Labour deserve some credit for mobilizing their vote and, despite what his critics say, Corbyn played it very cool. He had a neat line for every IRA/Hamas accusation, playing the peace card at every opportunity and largely managing to take the sting out of the issue that should have hurt him the most. May also foolishly played to the Labour strength by proposing cuts in social care. This became about the NHS, schools etc. For somebody who saw the danger of the ‘nasty party’ label, May crazily made the Tories seem even more nasty. Farron didn’t do well but I begin to think it’s down to Farron. Might be a nice bloke but, perhaps, too nice. Didn’t convince.

          All told: Tories lost because their manifesto was too radical and because they gave Labour so much room on social issues. Next time they might not be so lucky. Corbyn has proved to the mainstream party that he could lead them to a victory. Moreover, this election has not put it into the public’s mind that he could win. I never once thought it was possible. He remains a terrible choice of leader. That said, whether you love or hate him, he conveys authentic and sincere really well and given the mannered, posed, controlled Conservative campaign, he looks viable. This was still all about the Tories and I think the coming months will prove that. They’ve got a little time to tear the party apart and reform itself. The question is how they do that. Will they move back to the centre and finally cut the right away to drift back towards a Farage-led UKIP-perhaps-by-another-name? Or will they continue to try to hold the right and hope that no party moves for the centre? For political watchers, last night’s result really was manna from heaven.

          • Rob Walker | 9th June 2017 at 4:13 pm |

            Think the decision to put the army on the streets didn’t help her either David, simply highlighted the lack of police numbers which lay entirely on May’s doorstep. Just read a tweet that said that the Tories were 1,688 votes away from a majority, while if they had got 2,227 votes less they wouldn’t have been able to form a majority government even with the DUP. Given this is the second time in 7 years we have had a hung parliament all those arguments against PR are starting to look a little weak, Labour should take a chance and pop it in it’s manifesto, might hoover up the remaining Libdems.

            Think it’s a bit of a shame we had that reaction to the so called “dementia tax”, it has taken the idea of death taxes off the table for the next decade at least. Nobody thinks they ought to be the ones paying for public services and healthcare it seems, even in death. It gives very little room for manoeuvre on policy. The answer of course is to tax the rich, even though as France has most recently proved they simply move their money and your revenues go down. It seems we are doomed to kick this can down the road till the problem of funding care and public services spirals out of control.

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