Less than two months ago, Theresa May made a strategic decision that was universally praised by the political commentariat as a thoroughly sensible move.
On the day the PM called the election, the Conservatives were a staggering 18 polling points ahead of a Labour party in total chaos. What’s more, her personal approval ratings were the highest on record for a sitting PM.
And so, it was decided. All May had to do was sit tight and wait. In fact, Conservative Campaign HQ perceived saying anything meaningful at all as an unnecessary risk. Instead of hustings, debates and open media appearances, May and her team appeared exclusively at tightly scripted events open only to verified supporters.
The party’s offer was simple. Easy on the policy, the ideas and the change. Heavy on the now infamously hollow four-word soundbite: ‘Strong and Stable leadership’.
Predictions of a hugely increased majority and the death of the Labour party have been crushed, with the poll delivering Tory losses, Labour gains and a hung parliament with the fate of the Conservatives at the whim of Ulster’s Democratic Unionist Party.
What went wrong?
It’s clear that May and her party have misjudged the mood and allowed Corbyn and his team to seize the initiative. The modern political sphere is today less about traditional conceptions of safe, authoritative governance and more about three things – personality, promises and focus.
Promises: Put very simply, Corbyn has promised something exciting for absolutely everyone. Free tuition fees? No problem. Full employment? Too easy. An extra £500 billion in public spending? Consider it done.
Of course, in previous conventional elections, such wild, reckless and undeliverable promises would have gone down like a lead balloon. Only five years ago, the thoughtful and moderate economics of Miliband and Balls were widely seen as beyond the pale.
This campaign however, realism has been dwarfed by inspiration. Even those who don’t really believe the hype have been partially drawn into the excitement and momentum of Jez’s political goody bag. Crucially, the so-called economic ‘experts’, who predicted Brexit Armageddon, are now rightly seen as a complete intellectual irrelevance.
This is not a specific campaign phenomenon. Just look at Brexit and the election of Trump. The people are far less willing to be told it ‘can’t be done’ or ‘it’s just not realistic. A lack of clear policy agenda and distinctive identity have harmed the Conservatives. They only needed to look at Turnbull’s Liberals to see the danger in being all things to all men.
Personality: I’ll come straight out and admit it. I warmed to Jeremy Corbyn. While he has been bitterly mocked by the mainstream media and establishment classes, he simply doesn’t care. Corbyn is an unashamed socialist and a welcome change from the consuming, shallow liberalism of the modern-era Labour Party. Similarly, while he is not a traditionally polished media-performer he has grown into a compelling one.
Corbyn’s passionate partisanism has been in stark contrast to May’s non-committal centrism and has endeared him to many. Likewise, May has at times, appeared scornful and complacent. Sending Amber Rudd to the debate in her place was a cringeworthy mistake and deeply-damaged her image as a strong, reliable leader.
Focus: Every election that goes by, British politics becomes less about winning ‘floating voters’ and more about energising the party base or a particular voter group.
Thus, aggressive focus on issues of strength helps shape debate and direct media coverage. Labour have been relentlessly effective at this – constantly floating new initiatives and proposals and focusing on areas in which they poll well, the NHS for example.
Remarkably, CCHQ meanwhile, allowed one of the biggest democratic decisions in British history to drift down the agenda until it has been almost forgotten.
Brexit was the one thing that gave the party dynamism and popular radicalism. While Corbyn may be a Brexiteer, many sinister liberals in his party would, upon their election, work tirelessly to overturn the result.
The Conservatives are the only mainstream party trusted on Brexit and the issue presented us with a once in a lifetime opportunity to win over, once and for all, Labour voters in the party’s traditional heartlands.
This election campaign should be a massive wakeup call.
If conservatism is to flourish in the future, it must be defined by its vision it’s boldness and its radicalism. If we are to win in elections to come we must be so much more than the ‘slightly better option’.
What conservatism can offer must be communicated more effectively and more passionately. Then and only then will we enjoy long-lasting victory.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.