The advice given to writers is to “write about what you know”. I am taking that advice to heart today.
I know the Tory Party. I have been a member since the autumn of 1992; joining just a week or so before Black Wednesday. I have been an officer in the party. I have campaigned for the party in local, general, European and Mayoral elections for nearly 25 years. I have stood for parliament for the party. I am still a member of the party. I am still a supporter of the party; voting Tory yesterday in Southport. I know the Tory Party.
There is plenty to say about Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party; plenty to say about Scotland and the verdict given on the SNP and Indy2; plenty to say about some of the personal stories of yesterday, including the much-maligned but much under-appreciated, Nick Clegg. There will be plenty of time to talk about these things. But today – the day that we absorb the most unexpected and sensational general election results in modern times – is the time for me to talk about the Tory Party.
Let’s start at the beginning. This election was called for party advantage with the Prime Minister believing the time for ripe to secure a new mandate and big majority, with an unprepared and unelectable opposition at her mercy. The pretext of Brexit and the need for a stronger hand in negotiations with the UK was always an unconvincing smokescreen but everyone understood the call that was made and most of us – us Tories – supported it. A chance to cement our position; a chance to consign Jeremy Corbyn and his unelectable, left wing, protest movement to history. Let’s do it!
Having called the election – a gamble because it didn’t need to be called and the government already had a majority in parliament – Theresa May then had to go on and win it. Ring any bells, Mr Cameron?
In this age of cynicism of politicians and suspicion of all establishment figures and figures of authority, it was always going to be problematic to allow yourself to be defined as the establishment figure in this election, playing the usual Westminster games and taking the public for granted. This was Theresa May’s first major problem. Being defined as lying; as someone who far from strong and stable and just getting on with the job, was prepared to change her position for cynical, personal gain. The charge stuck. As many have said’ “what about the 20 point poll lead, first attracted you to call a general election, Prime Minister”. The electorate smelt a rat very early in this campaign.
Having allowed herself to be defined by her opponents and the media – a poor start from which she never recovered – the campaign itself was a shambles. It was the worse Tory campaign I have seen – by far – and I was involved in the 2001 William Hague “save the pound “ campaign.
In communications terms it failed four big tests.
Firstly, it had no overall message that was recognisable and credible. They lacked a big narrative – there was no story about how the country would be better if they won. It was pitched as another Brexit vote and a choice between strong and stable and a coalition of chaos – looked how that worked out. That message did not work because it didn’t stick – you can’t be strong and stable whilst changing your position on key issues (or appearing too change it), including on calling the election. The messaging was all built around one person and that person’s unique ability to lead Britain – sadly when that person doesn’t step up and meet that description there is nothing left of the story.
Secondly, it failed the simplicity test. Any campaign message – political or otherwise in PR – needs to be deliverable in one sentence or phrase; easy to understand; clear language; simple terms. Who could honestly say they could articulate the Tory policy on social care and in doing so could meet those three tests? Who could say they understood the detailed position on means testing winter fuel payments? Who can say they could explain to a floating voter in words of one syllable why the Tory offer was better for them and their family than the Labour offer with its clear and simple policies such as removing tuition fees (putting aside the question of how it and the other long list of spending commitments would be funded)?
Thirdly, you need to find the right way of delivering your message; in these times you need your social media strategy to work with a face to face strategy that is beamed into homes through TV and radio. In election terms this means lots of energy (sound and act passionate and get around, lots), high visibility (be saying and doing stuff every day in different and interesting ways), interact with real voters in normal places (in the market square not in restricted, invitation-only events in factories with cleared in advance questions) and look like you are enjoying it – people will see that and respond. Theresa May made a massive mistake – a move which thumbed its nose to the electorate and smacked of arrogance – of ignoring the television debates and avoiding some key media outings. The genie came out of the bottle in 2010 on TV debates and the public now expect them. Mrs May sent a message that she was scared or complacent – either way it went down very badly – rightly so.
Fourthly, you need to understand your audience. This was the most catastrophic part of the Tory failure – although it had other hopeless aspects to compete with for this risible title. The Tory manifesto lacked a story, lacked clarity, lacked excitement, lacked coherence and lacked the detail needed to enthuse the electorate that there was a credible plan for Britain. It lacked all of these things because it wasn’t clear who it was talking to – it had no hinterland, no Mondeo Man, no one nation. As a result the overall pitch was too generalised, vague and lacking substance. I did not know who Mrs May was talking to when she was selling her vision (such as it was) and policies – at times if felt like it was only available to Brexiteers. What about the JAMs, the hardworking families, the students, the retired, the Joneses?!
In summary it was an unholy mess, from start to finish. I was one of those Tories who thought all of this and said it throughout the campaign but still – in a hopelessly out of touch mindset – felt we would get away with it because Labour was unelectable with its amateurish leaders and Santa’s list style prospectus. I felt the UKIP collapse, which came, would almost universally help the Tories. I felt that the average poll lead would be borne out and that whilst turnout would be up, so too would the Tory vote where it mattered. I felt all of these missteps – these gigantic, Gruffalo-sized missteps that were made – would be things to learn from for next time but wouldn’t stop us winning this time. How wrong can you be?!
Perhaps the only thing worse than the result has been Theresa May’s response to it – in substance and message. Getting into bed with the DUP is ugly on so many levels. I understand the electoral math but I also understand equality, human rights, loyalist terrorism and corruption. But getting her tone and message wrong today is unforgivable. Her total lack of humility, of grace, of self awareness and of straightforwardness has sadly proved to me that this job is simply too big for her. She has come this far and can now come no further. She needs to go and go soon.
Today, thankfully I had somewhere else to go too. I woke this morning after a fitful and short nights’ sleep with a long-standing appointment in my diary – a day at the cricket with my Dad – Lancashire v Middlesex, around the corner from my house at Southport and Birkdale Cricket Club. So today, I have done a John Major the day after a massive electorate disaster.
Spending the day at the cricket, in the glorious Southport weather, was a great distraction (although Twitter was never far away!). I could think of fewer better ways to spend the day. Away from the chaos and confusion of Westminster, I had my own perfect sporting paradise to enjoy. As John Major may have said, “it was quite agreeable”.