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24 October 2019

Downing Street is fouling up its argument for an election. Does that matter?

The Conservatives’ well-prosecuted case that an election is needed to save Brexit is coming unstuck – but is it too late to damage them?

By Stephen Bush

You can’t fatten the pig on market day. That’s the phrase used by Lynton Crosby, who managed Boris Johnson’s 2008 and 2012 mayoral campaigns, and whose protégés today hold key strategic positions across the top of the Conservative Party machine, to illustrate an essential truth of winning elections: you have to have established your areas of strength before you try to fight on them.

If you want to make the election a question of who is the best prime minister, you need to make sure that you are ahead on that metric and that you have removed all the other distractions. In 2017, Theresa May was miles ahead on that score, but she produced a manifesto full of unpopular policies that distracted from the leadership question. Jeremy Corbyn, who had established a reputation as a different type of politician before the election started, was able to go from landslide defeat in the 2017 local elections to a near-draw in the general election just a few weeks later.

Boris Johnson’s campaign in the run-up to this election has been a masterclass in fattening the pig before market day. The argument that this parliament cannot agree a way forward on Brexit has been well-prosecuted, and advanced through the right-wing press and most importantly the BBC, through the government’s proxies and its highly effective spin operation. Downing Street has announced significant increases in government borrowing in a bid to reduce the gap between the Conservatives and Labour, at least rhetorically, on non-Brexit issues in a further bid to make the 2019 election one in which Brexit is essentially the only issue. 

The problem is that, somewhat unexpectedly, the government is struggling to stick the landing. A parliament that looked to be incapable of agreeing a way forward on Brexit has produced a small but clear majority in favour of Johnson’s terms of exit. He cannot unite parliament over the question of the next stage – the final trade agreement between the EU and the UK – or on his desire for a Brexit deadline of 31 October. But there is a majority to have finalised the EU-UK divorce by the end of 2019.

On the political programmes, which give over more time to analysis and to politicians themselves, the argument that the government badly needs an election to “save Brexit” is still being well-prosecuted. But the government’s justification is falling apart on the more electorally important channels, most strikingly in the newsbreaks on music and local radio, which is dominated in the UK by two organisations: the BBC and to a lesser but still significant extent, Global, which owns Heart, Capital, Smooth, and Classic FM.

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Both companies cascade functionally identical bulletins across their music radio stations, and listeners of both are hearing a much less favourable message: that the government has won a majority for its Brexit deal but has pulled the bill because it was defeated on timing; and that in order to stop Brexit being delayed to mid-November, they are flirting with holding an election that would delay it until at least the middle of January.

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You can’t fatten a pig on market day: but can you starve it? Within Downing Street and the wider government, some aides and some cabinet ministers think you can: that the well-constructed case for an election to “save Brexit” is collapsing and that going ahead with it now is an act of extreme folly.

Are they right? Who knows: that the government has done a pretty good job of advancing the case for an election up until now may mean it doesn’t matter if they foul up the argument around its launch. But if I were in Downing Street and the Conservative Campaign Headquarters, I’d look at how disastrously the decision to delay the election has worked out for the forces of organised Remain and for the Labour Party, and judge that there’s probably no harm in delaying the election a little longer.