Poster boy Dave and the coming campaign

Are you thinking what we're . . . Hang on, scrap that

Election posters are rarely targeted at the passing eyeballs on the Hammersmith Flyover. Rather, they are designed to create a media event that in turn gets TV, newspaper and, yes, blog coverage worth far more than the price of even the highest outdoor rate card.

And so, here we are again. The pre-campaign skirmishes will be punctuated regularly by these billboard launches, Sky News cameras in tow. In 2005, Labour used this period to launch some of its most memorable (if contentious) posters, including its attack on the Tories for their supposed £35bn cuts in public services.

This time, it's David Cameron's Conservative Party that's first with the ladders and paste. So what can we divine from poster number one?

1. Dave is going to get top billing. It's "David Cameron (featuring the Conservative Party)" and not the other way around. Given his popularity compared to his party's, that is understandable. For now, at least. But as Mike Smithson asks over at PoliticalBetting, could the Dave-specific approach become a hostage to fortune?

2. The Tories are hoping to have it both ways on policy. "I'll cut the deficit," says Poster Dave, demonstrating his economic credentials and his willingness to take tough decisions. But "not the NHS", he quickly adds, with a nod and a wink to those disenchanted Labour voters of 1997, 2001 and 2005.

It will be the Labour strategists' role to try to make a nonsense of this Janus-like approach. For example, as my colleague George Eaton notes elsewhere, the Tories may come unstuck over claims that a higher inheritance-tax threshold will be revenue-neutral. Again, two-faced: tax cuts, but not at the expense of "front-line services".

3. The Tories have ditched the dog whistle, for now. You'll remember the Lynton Crosby-inspired "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" campaign of 2005, which played to presumed fears over immigration, dirty hospitals and violent crime (see picture below). No sign, so far, of this kind of appeal to the base and, to be fair to Cameron, much of his four-year leadership has been spent repairing the damage.

But if the polls start to tighten once the campaign proper begins, there's every chance the tactics will get dirtier. After all, Michael Howard, who put his name a manifesto titled "Are you thinking what we're thinking? It's time for action", began his leadership trying to move the Conservatives back towards the centre ground.

Incidentally, you may not recall the man charged with pulling that 2005 manifesto together. His name was David Cameron.

 

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.