Isaac Levido and the Meme Machine

On the geeks behind the Tory campaign.

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On 31 October 2019 Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s senior adviser, gathered government aides for their weekly meeting in Downing Street to brief them ahead of a snap election.

Revered by Brexiteers as the finest campaigner of his generation, the former director of Vote Leave and the man credited as the author of Johnson’s last electoral victory – the 2016 EU referendum – announced that he would have no involvement in the Conservative campaign.

Instead, Cummings deferred to a man “100 times better at running campaigns than me”: Isaac Levido, a bearded Australian with no public profile beyond the Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ).

Levido, 35, was hired by the Tories in July at the same time Cummings joined the government, to a fraction of the fanfare. Levido is a protégé of the Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby and his brief is simple: do for Johnson what he did for Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister whose unexpected election victory Levido masterminded in May.

By leaving No 10, Cummings revealed just how deep the scars of Theresa May’s electoral humiliation in 2017 run in the Conservative Party. Survivors of her campaign wonder to this day who was in charge. Was it Crosby, who had delivered David Cameron’s majority in the election of 2015, or Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, May’s divisive chiefs of staff? “I still don’t know,” complains one cabinet adviser.

Levido is an inarticulate public speaker and lacks Crosby’s swagger. But no one in CCHQ – where staff describe the mood as “almost complacent”, despite the tightening of the polls – is in any doubt that he is in charge. Those who enter Levido’s “god pod” – an island of desks in the centre of the Tory campaign office – find decisions are made quickly. There is none of the prevarication that marred May’s regime.

Though Levido was Crosby’s deputy in 2015 and 2017, he is untested as an election campaign manager in his own right. So too are the men to whom he has outsourced the Conservatives’ social media operation: Sean Topham and Ben Guerin.

At 28 and 24 respectively, the New Zealanders – known collectively as the “meme machine” – look more like interns than the Tory ad impresarios of old, such as the besuited Tim Bell. They work in hoodies and T-shirts emblazoned with TG, the initials of their social media firm, Topham Guerin.

Together, the pair have revolutionised the Conservatives’ much-mocked online presence. “We find people who are on the fence,” a grinning Guerin told an audience of libertarians in Sydney the weekend after Morrison’s win, “and make their minds up for them.” Using memes and online publicity stunts, they seek to “unlock arousal emotions… anger, excitement, pride, fear”.

The premise is simple. Clogging people’s social media feeds with “boomer memes” – hastily executed and comically dubious pairings of image and text pitched to older voters – is considered more effective than publishing considered analyses of policy.

“You can have a quote from an economist. Or you can have a picture of a dog next to it saying ‘tax is bad’. Guess which one had more engagement,” said Guerin, reflecting on the successes of the Australian campaign. Whether it is changing the Tory press office Twitter handle to “factcheckUK” during Johnson’s head-to- head debate with Jeremy Corbyn, or releasing badly edited memes of the Labour leader as a chicken, the Tory social media strategy bears similar fingerprints.

Topham Guerin believes in quantity, not quality – and in speed, not scrupulousness. In November this year, it broadcast a video of Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, which was edited to make him look dumbfounded when asked about his own party’s policy. It garnered 5 million views on Twitter. Another, which Facebook has since banned, made BBC newsreaders look as if they were endorsing Johnson.

Uneasy though some Tory candidates are, most are enjoying the show. After all, they accepted Crosby’s aggressive media strategies as the price of success. Many believe that ethical questions to do with campaigning have little impact outside the Westminster bubble. One MP points to a video of Johnson answering banal questions about his daily routine to camera. “People were discussing with me on the doorstep how he made tea!”

Ministers believe they are beating Momentum – the pro-Corbyn group that relies heavily on social media – at its own game. “In areas like mine,” says one, defending a Leave seat in the Midlands, “the actual public have shared loads of our stuff [online], and none of Labour’s. It’s strange!”

For Topham and Guerin, meanwhile, controversy is part of the fun. “They spend a lot of time sitting around asking: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we did this?’” says a CCHQ colleague. “But their output is so diametrically opposed to what’s gone before that it’s impossible not to get excited about it.” And what could be cooler than winning two elections in a year? 

This article appears in the 04 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want