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6 November 2019

The Conservative campaign isn’t bad – it’s Downing Street which is the problem

The troubled start to the Conservative campaign isn't really about the campaign. 

By Stephen Bush

For a lot of the last general election, pointing out that the Conservative campaign was going badly was a fairly lonely pursuit. I took so much flack for one piece, headlined “Labour is having a much better campaign than the pundits think” that I had the title changed to “There is one place Labour’s campaign is strong: radio”.

But it was very clear to anyone who took a fairminded look at the Tory party campaign in 2017 that it was very poorly run, almost from the get go. It allowed its attack on Labour’s spending plans to be derailed by questions about whether Philip Hammond was safe in his job. Its own pledges, including a setpiece announcement on the minimum wage, were poorly costed and not worked through (what they believed to be a wage hike was actually a cut compared to what George Osborne had already promised). Theresa May’s encounters with voters, few though they were, went badly.

However, the consensus at Westminster remained that the Tory campaign was well-run and gliding to victory, and voters, too, were largely of the view that May’s campaign was going better: until the big and visible cock-up that was the Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto.

Now, everyone is alert to the possibility that history will repeat itself, and the very poor start to the Tory campaign has most people looking back at 2017 and concluding that the winter of 2019 might play out in a similar way to the summer of 2017. But I’m not sure that the narrative quite works.

Johnson’s campaign has already made what I see as a big and unforced error: agreeing to a one-on-one debate with Jeremy Corbyn, who is pretty good at that format, when their candidate, Boris Johnson, does poorly, and his path to re-election presupposes that his opposition will remain fragmented and divided. While there is a possibility that Corbyn will underperform in the debate, Labour are on a trajectory to defeat anyway unless something changes, so it is a risk-free proposition for him. Johnson, who has a lead to defend, is taking an unnecessary gamble.

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But the reality is that broadly, the Conservatives’ terrible news cycle is the result of decisions taken in Downing Street not in CCHQ, where the campaign is being run. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Grenfell interview is an example of why I thought it was a big risk to appoint him: he very clearly had not read Moore-Bick’s report and doesn’t seem to be across the things that Johnson’s government is doing to tackle the problem, an area where Boris Johnson already has a better record than Theresa May.

The biggest and most visible setback  – Alun Cairns’ resignation less than half an hour before Boris Johnson formally kicked off the campaign –  again, wasn’t, unlike the problems with May’s campaign, constructed by the campaign team. It was bad luck.

There are two sharply divergent conclusions we can take from this: we can conclude that Boris Johnson’s problems are worse than Theresa May’s, because his problems are about the weakness of his underlying product, whereas her problems primarily flowed from terrible decisions taken during the campaign. The second conclusion is his problems are less troubling in the short term, because over the next six weeks, CCHQ will be driving the agenda – not the Downing Street that has been at the heart of so many of the last week’s difficulties.