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29 September 2019

The Conservatives have subtly but significantly changed their message. Will it work?

The party's new slogan is more popular and broad-based than before, but the damage to its coalition may have been done.

By Stephen Bush

The Conservatives have a new message going into their party conference: “Get Brexit Done”. 

It’s a noticeable, and clever, gear change. While their public posture, and well-briefed position remains that they will keep chucking around terms like “Surrender Bill” like confetti, the party’s actual political positioning as they kick off their annual gathering is visibly something more soft-focus and expansive than that.

“Get Brexit Done” has multiple benefits. The only Brexit proposition that still commands majority support, across the Remain-Leave and left-right divide is that people want the Brexit process to be over.  So it makes sense for the government to prosecute the argument that the only way for it to be “over” is to give the Conservatives a majority – and has the benefit of being considerably less divisive than their previous “a nudge, a wink, and a not-so-gentle-hint that the other lot are all traitors” approach. It also slightly dedramatises the 31 October leaving date, which the government is highly unlikely to meet.

It’s also perfectly calibrated to allow microtargeting. It wasn’t the only problem that Zac Goldsmith had in 2016, but one of his difficulties was that his two messages – Sadiq Khan is a scary radical Muslim, and I’m a lovely environmentalist – were so at odds that very few people believed either of them. His attacks on Khan meant that his green credentials didn’t convince environmentally-concerned voters and his green credentials meant that he did a poor job convincing people he actually meant his attacks on Khan.

“Get Brexit Done” facilitates similarly microtargeted campaigns that retain their authenticity. Get Brexit Done and save the NHS. Get Brexit Done and invest in clean energy. Get Brexit Done and get more police on the beat. Get Brexit Done and get the leftists out of our universities. Or, as with the golden thread of the announcements thus far: Get Brexit Done and look after the fluffy animals.

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I’ve written before about why animal rights issues are so important to the Conservatives as far as regaining lost ground among socially liberal voters is concerned, and it is a striking change of tone and approach from a government that seemed to have forgotten that socially liberal people existed or had votes for the first three months of its life. I’m told that the week will have a largely similar approach, as the party looks to make up lost ground. 

The risk of the Johnson strategy was that it would succeed in gaining socially authoritarian pro-Leave voters from Labour and the Brexit Party, but it would come at the price of losing socially liberal and pro-Remain voters to the Liberal Democrats and the SNP. The question that could decide how the next election plays out is whether or not they’ve left it a little late in the day.