One of the truisms of this election is that the Conservative campaign will inevitably be better than the disastrous operation Theresa May ran in 2017. Last week, however, Boris Johnson made a small but significant misstep that suggested the lessons of that election remained unlearned.
Last Friday morning, the Prime Minister visited the King’s Mill Hospital in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire. It serves two constituencies that the Conservatives must win if Johnson’s gamble on a snap poll is to pay off: Ashfield (Labour majority: 441), and Mansfield (Conservative majority: 1,057).
Journalists from the Chad, the area’s evocatively-named local paper, were invited to interview the Prime Minister with less than a day’s notice. In the event, they were kept waiting for an hour and a half, only to get four minutes in his company and a single question. Its photographer was not allowed to follow Johnson around the wards, as a pool photographer from a press agency was.
The Chad, understandably, ran a lengthy piece detailing their shabby treatment at the hands of the Conservative campaign operation. It was reminiscent — eerily so — of stories run by the Plymouth Herald and Cornwall Live in the 2017 campaign, both of whose journalists were given similarly derisory treatment by Team May.
As I wrote on Friday, the local air war matters in marginal constituencies. Regional journalists have no qualms about kicking up a fuss when promised access does not materialise, as the Chad did so effectively. Failure to engage with the local press can very quickly become a national story. In May’s case, it reinforced perceptions that she was aloof, unempathetic, robotic.
It also sets a low bar for other parties to clear, as Labour have in the days since Johnson’s disastrous visit to Ashfield: Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, made sure to give a lengthy interview to the Chad on his visit to the same hospital yesterday. Jeremy Corbyn has since told the paper: “On my frequent visits to North Notts, I’ve always been happy to sit down for an interview with the Chad. Every politician should speak to local papers when they can. It’s not only about being held to account but you also learn a lot about the issues facing people.”
None of the significance of this has been lost on Conservative candidates locally, at least one of whom complained to CCHQ in the aftermath of Friday’s visit. Yesterday, Johnson pledged to return for a proper interview. The tone of his statement could reasonably be described as grovelling. “Local papers are so important for our communities, and the Chad is clearly incredibly valued locally,” he said. “I can’t wait to get back up to Derbyshire and speak to them at greater length about my plan to deliver Brexit and unite the country to deliver the first rate public services we all rely on.”
What does the U-turn tell us, beyond the fact that the Conservative press office don’t know the difference between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire? More than anything else, it is a salutary reminder of just how seriously the Tory campaign is taking the job of winning seats like Mansfield and Ashfield (and, for that matter, the Labour campaign too). And it also illuminates an even more fundamental truth: that the defining mission of the Tory campaign is to avoid the mistakes it made in 2017.