A week after the disastrous result of the election, Theresa May seems to have found some breathing space.
Although the displays of fervent support and devotion reported from the 1922 committee earlier in the week are somewhat suspect coming from a party with a reputation for ruthlessly dispatching failed leaders, it can at least be said that the Prime Minister’s backbenchers have decided to hang on to nurse for fear of something worse. The country remains divided, but then it has been for over a year, so this is nothing new and the increasing certainty of a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party means that the passage of the Queen’s Speech through Parliament is becoming ever more likely and that Jeremy Corbyn’s posturing as a Prime Minister denied looks increasingly fanciful. Her position is, relatively speaking, secure.
Nevertheless, the questions about why the Conservatives went backwards at all in this election at all, losing 13 seats instead of gaining the 70 seats predicted, must be answered as soon as possible to allow the Party to pick itself up, move past this ordeal and find a platform that allows them to resist Labour in Parliament and in the country more widely. The question of blame is a straightforward one: Theresa May called the election, so the buck stops with her (although it should be said that the 1922 committee ought to accept a small part of the blame given that all of its members supported the early election). The more useful questions for the Party going forward are why, once the election was called, their campaign went so catastrophically wrong and what they must avoid on the campaign trail in (speaking optimistically) 2022.
The most obvious flaw in the Conservative election campaign was the Prime Minister herself. Even before the election she was never considered the rhetorical equal of David Cameron: if his performances at Prime Minister’s Questions were dynamic and vigorous, hers were dreary and tired. This charisma vacuum swelled on the campaign trail and the decisions that were made trying to hide it contributed in a large part to the image of aloofness that characterised the Tory campaign. For example, while choosing not to let Theresa May attend TV debates with other party leaders was a justifiable decision on the part of CCHQ given reasons previously stated, sending Amber Rudd as a proxy was always going to reflect badly on the Tories by making it seem as if they felt so complacent about the election result that they could refuse to share a platform with their opponents and get away with it. Ironically, the decision to field the Prime Minister in long-format interviews did more damage to the Team May than any Leaders’ Debate could have done, with only Tim Farron emerging worse off than her robotic and evasive performance with the BBC’s Andrew Neil. Going forward, the Conservative Party should never again refuse to send their leader to participate in TV debates and should ideally select leaders who can trade soundbites with other leaders without collapsing under pressure.
For my part, I don’t believe that this weakness would have been much of a setback in itself, but became fatal as the result of CCHQ’s choice to market Theresa May as a presidential figure. The apparent weakness of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (evidenced by his dismal campaign for Remain last year, his tedious performances at PMQs and his many bungled shadow cabinet), as well as his questionable political ties and ideas make it easy to understand the argument for a campaign focussed on “strong and stable leadership” fronted by a “bloody difficult woman” like Theresa May. The fundamental mistake of the Conservative campaign was not to temper Theresa May’s image of grim professionalism with a bit of empathy to remind the electorate she was still human (although as it happens, the view that Corbyn’s campaign for Remain last year set the standard for his campaigning ability was also a mistaken one, he just couldn’t be bothered). Nowhere was this more obvious than in her handling of unplanned interactions with voters on the campaign trail, the first with a woman from Oxfordshire who berated her for cuts to disability benefits and the second with a different woman who broke down during May’s appearance on the BBC Question Time leaders’ Q&A when recounting her experience of NHS Work Capability Assessments. In both of these cases the right thing to do would have been to engage with the two women on the issues that concerned them (in the case of the second perhaps by a conversation after the show); in both of these cases, May seized up and brushed them off to avoid any risk of saying anything that would see her image of strength and stability undermined either through emotion or through saying something that contradicted the script.
But the faults of CCHQ’s presidential campaign don’t stop there. In order to channel maximum media focus onto the Prime Minister, key cabinet figures were kept out of the limelight and prevented from interacting with the media. Right up until the last week of the campaign it felt as if Boris Johnson, David Davis and Philip Hammond – the big beasts in the Tory camp – had ceased to factor into considerations made by their campaign managers, while most journalists had probably become far more familiar with Michael Fallon and Damian Green than they had been at the outset of campaigning. This approach was doomed for failure because in the UK, party politics is a team game. While the party leaders are obviously captains of their sides, all cabinet ministers have to contribute on the trail if a campaign is to succeed. Even Labour managed to come to terms with this over the course of the campaign: Sarah Champion (Shadow Women and Equalities Minister), was the warm up for their manifesto launch, Barry Gardiner (Shadow International Trade Secretary) was a mainstay in the spin rooms before and after the election set-pieces and Emily Thornberry (Shadow Foreign Secretary), John McDonnell (Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Diane Abbott (Shadow Home Secretary) were the main envoys for Jeremy Corbyn on Andrew Marr and Peston when the man himself was busy. 80% of Labour’s MPs had no faith in Corbyn’s leadership last year, and even they managed to put forward a united front at election time – there was no excuse for Theresa May not doing the same with her own disciplined party, except that CCHQ demanded other cabinet ministers to keep a low profile. At the next election, the Conservative party cannot make the same mistake and must employ all of its highest flyers in campaigning: Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith cannot be kept in the dark as they were this time.
The final factor in the disintegration of the Conservative campaign, and perhaps overall the most significant on its own, was the manifesto. I can somewhat understand the rationale behind the most unpopular of the policies – a free vote on the fox hunting ban must have been seen as a discreet enough policy to appeal to countryside voters without alienating the urban vote, scrapping free school meals may have made sense because it would mean children from rich families would no longer receive unnecessary subsidies while children from poorer backgrounds would still receive a meal, and the reforms to social care set out in the manifesto were (being charitable) a bold attempt to find a sustainable solution to the social care crisis, made so apparent this past winter.. As we know, these policies were met by the public with dismay and became the three policies most recognised by swing voters for all the wrong reasons, with the “dementia tax” and the resulting U-turn (which was considered both unnecessary and a fatal blow to the Prime Minister’s all-important “strong and stable image”) being by far the most recognised policy of any of the major parties. I think there are deeper underlying reasons for why these policies were so damaging beyond the obvious (i.e. treating pensioners, the Party’s core support base, worse than the Labour Party just as Corbyn was galvanising his own supporters was not the viable battle plan CCHQ seemed to think it was). For those on the left, the manifesto, in seeking to bring back hunting foxes, seizing the assets of the elderly and stealing lunches away from the children, seemed to mark a return to the “nasty party” politics of the Thatcher years after the Cameron rehabilitation – in pursuing this path, the Tories turned off many Labour voters who were considering lending them their vote to get the UK through Brexit. On the right, the manifesto pledges on putting workers on company boards and capping the prices of energy tariffs represented intolerable assaults on business and an overbearing “red tory” eagerness to interfere in the markets; on this reading, the 2017 election was fought between two parties promising a statist agenda, the small-state classical liberals didn’t turn out to support the Conservatives and Corbyn’s big state was far more attractive to swing voters.
Having said all this, there is a paradox. When Theresa May gave her speech on the steps of Downing Street after becoming Prime Minister, she pledged to build a country that works for all, implying a radical programme of reforms in the spirit of One-Nation Toryism to give the lower rungs of society a break after 7 years of grinding austerity. What we got in this manifesto, beyond the three more courageous policies stated earlier and slated weeks ago, was barely different to what was promised by David Cameron in 2015 – the same pledge to raise the personal allowance, more tax breaks for those of middling wealth and corporations, and no end to the public sector pay freeze – while at the same time rises in NI and income tax were hinted. As much as I hope Theresa May’s tenure in Number 10 isn’t characterised by promising too much and delivering too little, this is what we got in her plan for government – a lot of the same, sprinkled with reform in all the wrong places. In going forward from here, the Conservatives must adapt to the changing circumstances brought on by the result of last year’s referendum and acknowledge that the public are sick of austerity and sick of the nasty party. The government has to be seen to be delivering on its pledge to work for the good of the whole country instead of just talking about it. A start would be to scrap the planned reforms to social care and free school lunches and abandon the free vote on fox hunting, but these actions alone are insufficient. A recent study showed that average earnings in the UK have fallen to the level they were in January 2006; another study by the Office of National Statistics on house ownership showed that only those over 45 were more likely to own a home now than they were in 1983 and that the proportion of those between 18 and 24 who own a home has fallen from 32% to 9% between 1983 and 2014. As long as statistics like these keep emerging, the accusation by the Labour Party that the Conservatives work for the few and not the many will always ring true. To fight this while she still remains in office, Theresa May must revise her Party’s position on the Green Belt to encourage more housing construction to stop young people being priced out of the housing market and announce an end to austerity, preferably signalling a sea-change in the Conservative Party by ending the public sector pay freeze in order to win back the support of the lower middle class – she doesn’t have to be as extreme as Corbyn, but there has to be some signal of regime change if the Conservatives are to win the support of the disaffected Labour voters they were courting in this campaign and to stay in power.
To sum up, it is clear that the Conservatives went backwards in the recent election campaign because of the an over-centralised Conservative campaign focussed on the Prime Minister’s personal leadership qualities that excluded big beasts in the Party, was undermined by the May’s lack of charisma and a desire to keep her from interacting with other party leaders and ultimately discredited by an unpopular manifesto that failed to live up to expectations, resulting in a humiliating U-turn on social care. While the Prime Minister is safe for the time being, it is impossible that she can lead another campaign and must be replaced by the next election. When this replacement takes charge, it is imperative that they promise genuine change as soon as they take over, be unafraid of levelling with other parties and the general public on their plans for the country and formulate policies that deliver on these ambitions decisively, preferably through a collegiate process that includes all the major figures in the Conservative Party. I have already suggested a few basic policies that would go some way to restoring the faith of the masses in conservatism, some of which (i.e. building on the Green Belt), would probably be hugely unpopular in the eyes of the Party (although I would argue they are necessary reforms). In spite of this, all of us Conservatives must agree that something has to be done to win back the faith of pensioners and parents of primary school children shaken by the 2017 manifesto, as well as to take back the support of the lower-middle class and below from Corbyn’s Labour by the next election, or we face a humiliating defeat.
By Adam Fereday