Talking to Tory candidates, one hears various views about why their party’s campaign has misfired so badly. “Theresa May was never well known for taking decisions,” says a veteran of the Cameron government. “And if I hear one more person tell me she is like Maggie, I shall scream. She bloody well isn’t, more’s the pity.”
Another recalls the pivotal moments that sent Tory poll ratings falling – the announcement of the social care policy, and the subsequent U-turn. “It is insane to have a major change of policy affecting a large part of our core vote and not only not explain it, but not even consult cabinet colleagues about it. Why didn’t we promise a green paper so this could be properly discussed?”
Fingers are pointed at May’s two leading advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who are said to have argued over the matter. However, a candidate close to the party machine tells me: “Little Ben Gummer [the minister for the Cabinet Office] is in the mix somewhere. The phrase ‘too clever by half’ comes to mind.”
There is frustration not just about this damaging policy, but about the complacency of a campaign that, everyone was told, would not be fought complacently. Tory campaigns have become more presidential than in even Margaret Thatcher’s day, with candidates instructed to name-check Theresa May in speeches and election literature because of her apparent reputation for honesty and good leadership. However, many wonder where her colleagues are. Boris Johnson was due to be deployed late in the campaign, although, as a candidate in a safe seat said: “I can’t see how that’s going to make things any better.” Those awaiting high-profile sightings of Sajid Javid, Justine Greening, or even Philip Hammond waited largely in vain.
“I suspect for Philip the last straw was the bloody social care policy,” one of his friends told me. “Going out to defend it, and to explain how it was going to be financed, was a tall order. The Treasury are furious about how it was handled.”
Conservative candidates want the election to be about two things. The first is securing a majority big enough to discharge Brexit effectively, which is what the poll was supposedly about. The clamour has grown for Lynton Crosby, the party’s veteran Australian strategist, to be put in supreme command and to focus minds exactly on that. The second is Jeremy Corbyn, who has been playing badly on the doorstep in Labour/Tory marginals. His obfuscations over his relationship with IRA/Sinn Fein have been snatched greedily, with candidates hoping the party, and its allies in the press, would exploit them.
No candidate I spoke to expected the party to lose: but, as one put it, “If it wasn’t this opponent, would there have been an election now? And what sort of campaign would have been fought against, say, Yvette Cooper?” As so often, there is the perception that the Tories expect Labour to lose the election rather than winning it themselves. That bodes ill for the next term, when the Tories may need to cope either with a Labour Party under improved leadership, or with a new progressive grouping whose rise remains the subject of much speculation.
Trust is at the heart of the Tories’ problem: not about whether the electorate can trust them, but whether a prime minister who earned the nickname of “Submarine May” during the Brexit referendum can trust herself to make policy statements, and can trust senior colleagues to engage in serious campaigning.
The perception that she relies on the close-knit grouping of Timothy, Hill and her husband, Philip, and canvasses opinion on policy and strategy hardly more widely than that, is becoming corrosive. It may hardly register with 99 voters out of 100, but those on whose support she must rely after 8 June have noticed.
Social care is not playing badly everywhere. A Tory who has canvassed extensively in Jon Cruddas’s seat of Dagenham said it hardly featured at all, whereas long-term Labour voters often raise the doctrinal and personality flaws of Corbyn. In seats with older age profiles, however – especially those in the West Country, the south and East Anglia that are magnets for retired people – it has done huge damage, not least to May’s reputation for honesty when, having made a U-turn, she denied having done so. This in turn has harmed the communication of policies that the party thought would play well, such as a carefully managed Brexit, more workers’ rights, grammar schools in deprived areas and a commitment to social mobility.
When a poll appeared showing the Tory lead cut to 5 points there was a spasm of panic, beginning on the currency markets but rattling through Conservative ranks, especially among younger and more inexperienced soldiers. Those of us old enough to recall “Wobbly Thursday” in 1987 – when Thatcher was so rattled by a rogue poll that she sent her right-hand man Lord Young into Central Office to “assist” Norman Tebbit – feel we have seen it all before (the Tory majority in that election was 100). The word from Central Office now is that morale is good, and that the party chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, is “cautious but cheerful”.
Given how much abuse and disgruntlement is being fed back to the centre both directly by candidates and indirectly through the press, that is quite remarkable: but then no one believes, and probably with good reason, that the Tories will lose. Yet the victory for which the party is heading is one that has raised serious questions about political management. If May does not change her style early in her second term, she may become the greatest casualty of her own indecisiveness and failure to delegate.
This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning