Tories taking no chances as election campaign kicks off
Lexington's founding partner Mike Craven weighs up both sides of the 2019 election race.
This election chalks up a number of firsts but the most significant is likely to be a Tory U-turn on the economic orthodoxy of the last 40 years. Labour fiscal irresponsibility versus Tory financial rectitude have been cornerstones of election campaigning since the 1970s. Margaret Thatcher won in 1979 on sound money and fiscal discipline. John Major beat Labour in 1992 warning voters against a double whammy of tax increases and higher prices. David Cameron blamed Gordon Brown’s public spending surge for the economic crisis in the 2010 election.
Yet this week, as Labour reverted to traditional tax and spend economics, the Tories proposed to just spend. In both cases, public borrowing is set to increase substantially over the next parliament. Labour is planning an extra £50 billion a year, the Tories a more modest but still significant £20 billion. Fiscal ‘rules’ will change to license the largesse and Treasury civil servants will resort to hope over expectation that cheap money will not dry up.
The wider Conservative case: Boris, Corbyn and Brexit
The economic and fiscal impacts of either strategy are for the future but the short term electoral implications may worry some Tory strategists. Fear of Labour economics has been a key factor with swing voters in every election since 1979. If the economic weapons are blunted, what are the Tories relying on?
First, the power of Boris. His launch rally in Birmingham projected Boris the Optimist, Boris the Patriot and Boris, the man who will get Brexit done. The Prime Minister will have to be central to the Tory election campaign. This is partly due to the weaknesses of the rest of the Cabinet. Sajid David, Dominic Raab and Priti Patel are all weak media performers. Jacob Rees-Mogg came close to wrecking the first week with his comments on Grenfell. Even more than usual, this will be a presidential campaign.
Second, the threat of chaos under Corbyn – not one but two referendums, on Brexit and on Scotland. The spectre of the SNP close to the heart of government is a threat which served David Cameron well in 2015 and will be much to the fore in the next five weeks.
Third, Corbyn the extremist, the friend of terrorists and ne’er-do-wells on the international stage, who ignores anti-Semitism, and hopes to lead the most left wing government in history. A party so extreme that its own deputy leader has quit and two former MPs now advocate voting Tory. The ‘red menace’ is making a big comeback in election campaigning.
Most of all, the Conservatives want this to be a Brexit election, with the appeal to voters that Boris alone can get Britain out of the endless round of delay and obfuscation on our future relationship with the European Union. In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn would prefer Brexit to be kept in the background. In his launch speech in Wrexham he mentioned it in passing, a third of the way through. His appeal was about schools, hospitals, housing, climate change and investment.
Polling and strategy
The Tories remain easily in the lead in the polls – up to 11 points ahead of Labour – though movements after week one are inconclusive. Labour was initially more successful in talking about its agenda than the Conservatives, though the Tom Watson resignation and further focus on anti-Semitism may have registered with voters.
For now Labour has slightly squeezed the Liberal Democrat and Green votes and the Tories are doing the same to the Brexit Party vote. This is likely to be an election where the campaign will make a difference and local variations will be significant.
The Liberal Democrats with their Green and Plaid Cymru allies in the so-called Remain alliance will be fighting seat-by-seat campaigns focussed on maximising the pro-EU vote. The success or failure of this strategy will have a significant impact on the Tories and Labour. For both big parties, Remain anger could lose them seats in London and the south east. Scotland is more nuanced as Nicola Sturgeon’s loud demands for an independence referendum could frighten Unionist voters back into the Tory camp.
The Conservatives expect some London and south east losses but hope that these will be more than offset by gains at Labour’s expense in the midlands and the north. This was Theresa May’s strategy in 2016 as well and although the Tories did win some Labour seats, these were more than offset by the losses elsewhere. One retiring Labour MP summed up the Tory problem – “my Brexit voters are more Labour than Brexit and my Remain voters are more Remain than Labour”. This explains why the Tories want to keep the election focused on Brexit, and Labour on anything but.
Avoiding a repeat of 2017
The challenge for the Conservatives is that, with few if any willing partners among the other parties, even the DUP, they may have to win a majority or risk losing everything including Brexit. Winning that a majority means sustaining a clear and substantial lead in the polls, which they failed to do in 2017. Labour could enter government just by depriving the Tories of that majority, even if they are significantly trailing in votes and seats. This reality is likely to lead to the Tory campaign going up a gear next week. Everyone underestimated Labour and Corbyn in the last election and most were shocked by the outcome. Boris and his advisers do not intend to make the same mistake twice.