Sunday, May 28, 2017

Mrs. May and her flawed campaign

The Manchester atrocity hasn't actually persuaded people to forget what a very poor offering Theresa May is wanting to give them.  This is despite the serious efforts of May and her few loyalists, who have been banging on non-stop about security and doing everything they can to remind us all of Jeremy Corbyn's IRA links.  The fact is, though, that people on the doorstep are still interested in policy details that will affect them personally.

This is why the scorchingly bad social policy U-turn is still having an impact.  Tory candidates report a poor and antagonistic doorstep reaction with the U-turn itself having done little to restore any faith in Mrs. May's promises. Meanwhile the Labour party has been making more hay than expected with a range of policies that are basically saying "we know things don't work, so let's go back to a golden age of government intervention".  That works because the first part of the message resonates today and ever faulty memories allow the second part of it to gain traction.  There has been nothing particularly attractive in the offerings made by the May team, which is unfortunate because their manifesto begins with one of the best and most pronounced efforts to pitch conservatism towards the centre that has probably ever been seen in an election document.

More than part of the reason for the Tory shambles is the nature of both Mrs. May and her top team.  The lady herself is a solid but unimaginative and inflexible political performer with little depth.  She spent her Home Secretary years powering out some robust and occasionally draconian measures, toilingly defended some big mistakes and sat herself distantly from the Cameron/Osborne claque then ruling the party.  She was uninspiring but worthy; her public speeches and interviews were mundane and ultra-safe efforts, hard work to wade through and unilluminating. Fortunately for her, the more sparkling members of the political firmament all decided to implode and she was left sitting atop of the heap.  It's not the first time a worthy plodder has emerged on top and it is not necessarily a bad thing either.  However, it is not the basis for a personality campaign either.  Not in a democracy where you have to communicate outside the tribe at any rate.

Add to this the tight nature of her top team.  Just two people, her co-chiefs of staff Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, hold any sort of power or offer any sort of advice - of the type that will actually be listened to.  This is never a good set-up, and when it is compounded by an insular defensiveness from all three of them the situation becomes worse.  And while Mr. Timothy appears by all accounts to have tried to use his position to do some genuinely blue sky thinking about Toryism, his colleague Ms. Hill seems to have spent much of her time throwing her weight around and making sure everyone knows she is in charge.  A woman who has no public accountability and has never operated in the public sphere now sends bullying or demeaning texts to elected representatives, many of whom have a deal more political experience than she does.  More fool them for taking this sort of nonsense but the overall image has been of a paranoid and narrow clique desperately preserving their power and viewing everyone outside their trio as potential enemies.

This then is the set-up that gave the Tories the cataclysmic communications failure over the social care policy (a failure for which Ms. Hill, who acquired for herself the role of communications chief once she ousted any competitors, needs to take the blame).  It gets worse though.  Calling a quick election the Conservatives resorted once again to Lynton Crosby, a man whose stock in trade is to run highly personalised and dog-whistling campaigns that seriously endanger the long-term integrity of the brand he is working for.  The abysmal Zac Goldsmith London Mayoral campaign is the stand-out example, but go back a bit further and you can unearth the Michael Howard campaign of 2005 which left many voters with a nasty aftertaste.  This time the brand isn't even Conservative.  It is firmly focused on Theresa May herself, as if a party with over two hundred years of tradition and evolving ideology has really nothing to offer.  May's halting and repetitive speech-making has made us yearn for more articulate Tory spokesmen, and reached its apogee in her car crash interview with Andrew Neill.

The Tories - and Theresa May - are still the odds-on favourites to win this election.  They may, however, be counting the cost of their victory for some years to come, especially if the centre-left ever acquire a leadership that is even marginally more competent than the Corbyn mob of hucksters.  It takes many years to build up a credible and popular political brand.  It is a brave person who can say with confidence that Conervatism will survive Brexit Mayism.


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