The latest polling by Opinium shows the Conservatives with a 17 point lead over Labour, and Theresa May personally leading Jeremy Corbyn as “best Prime Minister” by 44% to 19%.
Received wisdom has it that the party perceived to be strongest on the economy and leadership generally wins. Indeed, in 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign team legendarily instructed their campaigners to focus on “The economy, stupid” in their successful Presidential campaign against sitting President George H. W. Bush. This was clearly instrumental in the Conservatives 2015 victory. However, last year’s vote for Brexit has, as with many other things in UK politics, turned this on its head. This is the Brexit election – a poll defined by the aftermath to the referendum – and the ability of the parties to deliver Brexit is key to success.
Politically, Brexit is an issue monopolised by the Tories. They are, of course, associated with it – and it plays to their strengths as the party seen as most able to steer the country to a successful outcome. Their approach to date has therefore been a cautious one which offers few hostages to fortune, and emphasises their ability to deliver for the country.
Theresa May is seen as a huge strength here, positively impacting her party’s’ overall poll ratings – and the Conservatives are keen to capitalise upon this. Indeed, pictures of her campaigning over the weekend showed her standing in front of a blue banner with the words ‘Theresa May: Strong, Stable, Leadership in the National Interest’ and no mention of the Conservative Party. Although it is too early to say whether the leaks by the European Commission of their account of the Downing Street dinner will have an impact, Conservative Campaign HQ will presumably be betting that it ultimately does not, with their ‘strong, stable’ message having the far greater traction.
These are early days in the campaign, with many weeks yet to go, but it would be surprising if this basic playbook changes. The Tories are playing a cautious game which avoids offering any hostages to fortune and maximises their freedom post-election. Their manifesto is not expected for at least another week, but, given the time they have had to prepare it, it is unlikely to be a big document. They are coming under pressure on discrete areas such as the pensions triple lock and tax rises. When asked about this on Sunday on the Andrew Marr Show, May did actually commit to no further rises in VAT. However, she refused to make the same commitment on national insurance or income tax – and on the triple lock, said that although state pensions would continue to increase, the Tory manifesto could revisit the way this is calculated.
By contrast, Labour are in a situation where they desperately need to change the narrative away from Brexit in order to get cut-through. We have seen some attempts from them over the weekend to do this – for example, by announcing plans to put an extra 10,000 police on the streets, and promising ‘consumer rights’ for private renters.
However, Labour also appear frequently to be hampered by very variable performances from their top team, which play into the Conservative narrative around competence and the dangers posed by Labour being elected. We have recently seen Labour go into damage limitation mode following a disastrous interview by Diane Abbott in which she claimed that recruitment of 10,000 extra police would cost £300,000. We have also recently seen the media widely sharing pictures of John McDonnell at a May Day rally in Trafalgar Square, talking in front of the hammer and sickle symbol and the flag of Bashir Assad’s regime. If they want to turn round the polls, Labour urgently need to up their game and start delivering a slicker, more competent, performance which focuses on issues which remain strengths for them, such as the NHS.
This article is part of our Spring 2017 newsletter.