The prevailing wisdom in the wake of the election result two weeks ago was that Theresa May made the wrong decision in calling for a snap general election. Given how she has thrown away a slender majority in favour of a hung parliament, weakening her position going into Brexit negotiations, one can see why many are drawing that conclusion.
However, prior to the announcement of a snap election on April 18, an increased majority was almost guaranteed. The Tories were some 20 points ahead in the polls, May’s own popularity had never been higher, and Jeremy Corbyn was seen as a less desirable Prime Minister even by Labour voters. Bearing all of that in mind, calling the election wasn’t May’s mistake at all. Running such a woeful campaign however, was.
The smoking gun of the Conservative election suicide was the manifesto. How on earth the Tories, traditionally seen as the party of fiscal responsibility, found themselves releasing an uncosted manifesto will remain one of the biggest mysteries of the election. It also made it much more difficult to question Labour’s economic competence.
Not that the Conservative campaign focused much on the economy at all. What criticism of Labour’s fiscal platform there was, came entirely from the press, usually on the back of a mathematically challenged Diane Abbott own goal. ‘It’s the economy stupid’ is as true as it is cliché, and provided they had their ducks in a row, the Tories could have absolutely hammered Labour on the economy this time around. However, they instead put themselves in a position where doing so just wasn’t a viable option.
At the 2015 election the message was all about the damage to the economy Ed Miliband’s fiscal policies would represent. But May’s abandonment of anything resembling fiscal prudency in favour of stealing wholesale from Red Ed’s playbook – energy price caps, worker representation on company boards, an even higher minimum wage, yet more splurging on the NHS – made it impossible to sound credible in attacking Corbyn’s own ruinous approach to the nation’s finances.
In trying to occupy the centre ground, May managed to alienate her core voters who see increased government interference in the economy as counter-productive. This approach may have worked against a Gordon Brown or even Miliband, but trying to out-Labour Labour when they have a marxist offering everyone everything under the sun was only ever going to result in failure.
That abandonment of her core support manifested itself in other ways too. Bad mouthing the ‘libertarian right’ as extreme as the ‘socialist left’ isn’t going to curry favour with anyone, rather it will just cause the commentariat who would normally come out and bat for you to write much more critical pieces of your approach. In fact, I can’t remember seeing any pro-May piece that was full of praise for our current Prime Minister, rather than a reluctant endorsement in the face of a borderline communist alternative.
But if you are going to alienate your usual cheerleaders, at least come out and bat for yourself. The mooted reform to social care was arguably a bold step. There’s an undoubted need for reform, and lord knows the nation’s finances still aren’t stable. But if you’re going to put forward a policy that you believe is the right remedy, if bitter to swallow, come out and fight for it. Dropping it at the first sign of resistance doesn’t exactly play in to the ‘strong and stable’ mantra strewn across every leaflet and TV appearance.
There lies the crux of the matter. The Tories seemingly ran a campaign based entirely on how good Theresa May was without bothering to check whether she was actually any good to begin with. Sending a stand-in to debate for you against the leaders of every other party would look a bit circumspect at the best of times, but when your entire campaign is built around the strength you supposedly represent, that image of weakness is compounded tenfold.
A campaign based on personality would be appropriate for someone who has one. I care little for idiotic questions from journalists like ‘what’s the naughtiest thing you’ve done’ when there’s a ramshackle manifesto to be torn apart, not to mention no substance on the mooted approach to the biggest political undertaking this country has seen in years. But again, if your campaign is based on character, have some character to sell. Running through wheat fields isn’t endearingly cheeky, it’s just stupid. A question like that is supposed to give you a chance to make yourself relatable and likeable to the electorate. An answer that can only be given by half a dozen people outside of a Charlotte Bronte novel just makes you meme fodder.
And that, ultimately, is what cost the Tories the election. The campaign was full of soundbites, and slogans, and mantras, but it was utterly devoid of substance. There was some poetic irony on results night when the author of that manifesto Ben Gummer lost his seat. The shallowness of that document coupled with May’s own ineptitude meant that whilst calling an election and seeking to increase the majority at the government’s disposal was the right idea, it was an idea that was woefully executed.