James Frayne: What the next Tory election campaign will look like

Written by James Frayne on 5 November 2018 in Opinion
Opinion

Whether or not Boris Johnson is their leader, senior Conservatives are considering their gameplan. 

The occasional rumours of a snap election are just that: rumours. But they reflect two realities: that the Government is in a precarious position as it navigates Brexit amid minority status; and growing belief in Conservative circles that Corbyn has peaked and is vulnerable to attack. While firm plans aren't being made to fight an election, senior Conservatives are at least thinking about what an election campaign might look like - regardless of who the leader is. So what will the Conservatives be thinking about and how are they positioned to execute a campaign?

Let's deal with Brexit up-front and let's assume for argument that our exit is basically orderly (a possibly excessively optimistic assumption). Here, the party will be torn. On the one hand they'll want to drive hard into Labour's Northern heartlands by emphasising their success in negotiating withdrawal; on the other hand they'll want to draw a line under the issue for affluent Southern voters.

In the end, depending on the nature of the deal, they'll surely try to make the point that we've finally left - amid Labour opposition - while making it clear we're now going to do everything possible to have a friendly and constructive economic and political relationship with the EU. Policy wise, we should expect announcements over things like greater security cooperation with the EU and member states. Visually, we should expect lots of pictures of senior Conservatives with their European counterparts. 

The Conservatives will then try to negate two historic weaknesses. Firstly, on healthcare. The Party knows that voters' doubts about their commitment to the NHS has dragged down their ratings for years. It has also undermined their ability to project values around caring for communities. The announcement of £20 billion in new funding - along with additional money for things like mental health in the Budget - gives the Party strong campaigning points and goes a long way to blunting Labour attacks. In fact, for Labour, the Conservatives' healthcare announcements are a disaster. 

The second weakness surrounds their ability to appeal to young people. Last election, they were wiped out amongst young voters. Since then, the Party has been looking for policy ideas to get at least some of them back onside. To date, the Party has been mostly worried about increasing opportunities for young people to buy houses and this will likely continue - perhaps with something of a pivot to help renters, in the knowledge that the sort of major developments required to help young people buy will take time. We're also likely to see further high profile initiatives on the environment. Because of Michael Gove's creative energy at Defra, there will likely be many ideas to market. The Party knows that the environment is a major priority for young voters. 

But how will the Conservatives campaign on their strengths? Most obviously, the Party will likely continue to highlight their success in maintaining a stable economy - with low unemployment and continued (albeit slow) growth. They know that middle class voters are worried about Corbyn and McDonnell's stewardship of the economy. It's hard to bring the theme of economic stability to life, however. It is therefore not inconceivable, depending on the timetable of the election, that the Party will look to give working class and lower middle class voters some sort of tax cut. The Budget gave an indication that the Party thinks that the tax cuts message still matters. 

The Party will also surely start to ramp up the issue of crime. Despite the fact crime has been rising on their watch, the Conservatives still enjoy a lead over Labour on the issue and Corbyn oozes weakness on law and order. It will not be difficult for the Party to cement their lead over Labour with a series of announcements to both help the police and to punish violent crime more severely. 

Which brings us back to Corbyn personally. Over the last year, anyone that has run or attended focus groups will know that Corbyn's reputation has been steadily falling. Labour's brand remains strong, but English working class and middle class voters are scathing about Corbyn. They think he is incompetent and weak and a poor leader. While there is some fear about Labour policy, and also concern about his values, voters are mostly worried about the simple idea of him being the Prime Minister. The Conservatives will put Corbyn front and centre of any campaign. 

What does all this look like, joined up? In truth, not that dissimilar to the last election campaign in its major themes - of stability, competence, and the risk associated with Corbyn. But the Party will be much more systematic about dealing with weaknesses upfront - on issues like healthcare and the opportunities for the young. And they'll surely offer more retail policies than last time, where there was little to actually get ordinary working class and middle class voters out.

Again, assuming that Brexit isn't a debacle (and again, a big assumption), the Conservatives will go into any campaign with confidence. But if Brexit does go badly, all bets are off. 

 

 

 

 

About the author

James Frayne is former policy director at Policy Exchange and founding partner of the public affairs agency Public First.

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