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8 November 2019

Is Boris Johnson repeating one of Theresa May’s campaign errors?

The Prime Minister has been accused of snubbing local newspaper journalists on a visit to a key Midlands marginal.

By Patrick Maguire

One of the many missteps of the disastrous 2017 Conservative campaign was its treatment of local newspapers, which became a national story. After one particularly robotic interview with the Plymouth Herald, Theresa May was criticised for offering the daily “three minutes of nothing”. The Tories later lost one of their two seats in the city. 

The Conservative campaign was also accused of shutting two journalists from Cornwall Live, the Herald’s sister title, in a room on an industrial estate, rather than allowing them to film the prime minister tour a factory. Both incidents reinforced perceptions of May as an aloof, distant, unempathetic figure. 

Both incidents were written up by the respective outlets – in predictably disobliging fashion. While national titles have their own gripes about access to the prime minister, few air their complaints publicly for fear of jeopardising future opportunities. 

[See also: The froideur of Theresa May’s parliament portrait]

Local papers do not share their squeamishness, for obvious reasons: their access to senior Westminster figures is naturally limited to election time (if their patch is fortunate enough to receive a visit), and they do not live or die on the quality of their access to and relationships with those in national government in the same way that UK-wide papers do. 

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But the reverse is also true. The editorial priorities of local newspapers are just that: local. Jeremy Corbyn’s team have always been more comfortable granting interviews to regional journalists for that very reason. Tricky national stories are less likely to crop up. They feel, rightly or wrongly, that the Labour leader is more likely to receive a fair hearing and positive headlines. In their view, the cost of the minor inconvenience is well worth the benefit of landing their message.

Has Boris Johnson learnt those lessons? Not if you visit the website of the Chad, the weekly paper for two key marginals in Nottinghamshire: Mansfield (Conservative majority: 1,057) and Ashfield (Labour majority: 441). This morning the Prime Minister visited the King’s Hospital in Sutton-in-Ashfield, which serves both constituencies. Journalists from the Chad and three other outlets were kept waiting for the Prime Minister for an hour and a half, only to get four minutes in his company. The touring nationals got half an hour.

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So, instead of a feelgood splash headline about NHS investment in Mansfield and Ashfield, Johnson has instead given the seats’ local paper cause to write an understandably furious account of its treatment at the hands of his campaign. In races this tight, the local air war matters just as much as its noisier national equivalent. If the Conservatives aren’t careful, they might lose it.

[See also: The revenge of Theresa May]

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