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6 June 2017updated 30 Jul 2021 1:45pm

The 3 big strategic mistakes the Conservatives made in the election campaign

Despite all the criticism of Labour’s position, Jeremy Corbyn and his Brexit secretary have played a strategic blinder. 

By Tom kibasi

No matter the result on Thursday, the story of this election campaign has been Labour’s rise and the Conservatives’ relative decline. This has largely been attributed to surprisingly effective campaigning from Jeremy Corbyn, and Theresa May’s wooden and evasive performance. Where the Conservatives have been described as “shambolic” and “chaotic”, Labour has been regarded as “energetic” and “inspiring”. Yet this account misses the deeper strategic reasons why the Conservatives have had a tougher campaign than they expected, and Labour has had a better campaign than many supporters had hoped.

The Conservatives have had a serious failure of strategy and Labour have been the beneficiaries. They made three errors of political judgement: first, that the election could be framed as a choice about delivering Brexit; second, that they would be the beneficiaries of a sharp focus on the contrasting leadership styles of May compared to Corbyn; and third, that the country wanted stability rather than change. Each of these assumptions has proved false. Even the shift in the focus of national discussion towards security as a result of the attacks in Manchester and London has not played out as they might have expected.

A Brexit framing could have been possible on multiple occasions, but each were missed. Just like Gordon Brown before her, May dithered. The first opportunity was after the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament would need to vote on Article 50 notification. May could have convincingly argued that, given the enormous pro-Remain majority of MPs, if Parliament was to vote, then an election was necessary so that it reflected the “will of the people”. This opportunity was missed.

The second opportunity was when the Article 50 bill was laid before Parliament. While Labour’s three-line whip in support of the bill closed one opportunity, others were still open. May could have called a snap election after the Lords sent the bill back to the Commons, or even as a response to the large number of amendments that were tabled. She could have claimed that she could not be sure of passing the bill without harm to the national interest. Instead, May dithered once again. 

By the time the Prime Minister finally called the general election, the argument that it was necessary because other parties were seeking to frustrate Brexit was tenuous at best. This was obvious precisely because the EU had already been notified under Article 50 that we would be leaving. May’s response was to manufacture a row with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Predictably, much of the left walked straight into this trap with howls of outrage, allowing May to claim that “every vote for me strengthens my hand in the negotiations” and questioning the patriotism of her opponents.

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Though it has been clear that May is on her strongest ground when discussing Brexit, her campaign lacked the political nous to sustain the argument. A smarter strategy might have been for the Conservatives to have ignored Labour and its leader, and responded to every statement by Tim Farron and the Liberal Democrats as if it demanded an urgent response. A back-and-forth between May and Farron on Brexit would have benefitted both parties, to Labour’s detriment. Since both parties are fishing for votes in different pools, there would have been little downside for either.  

Despite all the criticism of Labour’s Brexit position, Corbyn and his shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer have played a strategic blinder. They received heavy criticism at the time – notably from Peter Mandelson – for the three-line whip on the Article 50 notification bill. In hindsight, that move both denied May a snap election at the time, and made the argument that an election was necessary now appear as absurd as it is. The international evidence shows the voters are generally suspicious of the motivations for snap elections, and the governing party does worse than expected. Labour’s strategic positioning has exploited this to the fullest extent possible.

Moreover, Brexit has presented two other strategic advantages to Labour. It forced Chancellor Philip Hammond to junk his predecessor’s fiscal rules and effectively to abandon the government’s deficit reduction targets. This then enabled John McDonnell to make the case for more government spending – Labour’s main vulnerability in recent years – without an effective rejoinder from the Conservatives.

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The other major strategic vulnerability for Labour in recent years has been immigration. Starmer’s smart answer that when Britain leaves the EU, free movement will end in any event, has proved effective at taking the question off the table. Since the Conservatives have not proposed a new immigration regime, there is little more to be said, other than Labour’s commitment to fair and balanced migration in the national interest.

And so the Brexit framing of the election fizzled out. This is where the second major strategic miscalculation took place. When May entered office in July last year, she and her team appeared to have quickly understood that the underlying cause of the vote to leave the European Union was not the particularities of EU directives, but a vote against the unfair, unjust, and unbalanced economic status quo. Somehow, between the day she walked into Downing Street as Prime Minister and the day she walked out to announce the general election, that lesson was forgotten.

The Brexit framing failed, not only because it was tenuous to begin with, but also because it turned out the public cared a lot more about the underlying causes of the vote – an unfair economy and an impoverished public realm – than about who would be heading off to negotiations in Brussels. The public know that the economy isn’t working very well for most people and that it is in need of fundamental change. This is a message the Conservatives appeared to have either not understood or to have forgotten.  

This alienation from the experiences of voters was further reinforced by the leadership message of “strong and stable”. This simply served to bolster the sense that the Conservatives are about keeping things the same, rather than changing them. In a jaw-dropping error, at the start of the campaign, they repeated the errors of the Remain campaign by telling voters not to risk the strong economy by electing Corbyn with his new spending commitments. It was a total misjudgement of the public mood and the deeply-felt anger about stagnant wages, rising inflation, and deteriorating public services. Only later did the Conservatives make the subtle but important shift from claiming to have created “a strong economy” to the much diminished claim of having “stabilised the economy”. In a “change” election, the Conservatives found themselves defending and promoting the status quo.

The final strategic blunder was about leadership. The Conservative campaign was built on the assumption that the country knew May and liked what they saw, but did not know Corbyn but disliked what they had seen of him. The thrust of the attacks – that Corbyn is some sort of terrorist supporting madman – simply didn’t ring true when the public saw a man who seems genial, passionate about the poor, and comfortable in his own skin. Most voters could more readily imagine Corbyn chairing the Allotment Association AGM than associating with Hamas, Hezbollah or the IRA. No matter their truth or not, even in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, these allegations do not appear to have stuck. Most people appear to believe that Corbyn is much more likely to be guilty of naiveté rather than malice. “Out of his depth” might have proved a much more effective line of attack than “deep in with terrorists”.  

Most commentators and all polls suggest a Conservative victory on Thursday. The consensus is that the question is about the size of the majority they will secure. Yet no matter the scale of Thursday’s victory, the reputations of May and the Conservatives’ strategists will have taken a tumble. May is not as good as she thinks she is, her critics say. There is also an awful lot of ire directed at her co-chief of staff Nick Timothy, the presumed architect of the unpopular social care policy. The truth is that the mediocrity of the campaign is a far less serious problem than the strategic miscalculations. Some Conservatives must miss George Osborne and think it is time for Sir Lynton Crosby to pursue other interests.

Under different circumstances, the Conservatives’ catastrophic failure of strategy would lose them the election. The country would be on the verge of electing a Labour Prime Minister. The reality is that no matter how far Labour has gained from their opponents’ blunders, the Labour offer remains too narrow to build a large enough coalition in the country to carry the party through to power. The public has warmed to the Labour leader, but they still regard May, for all her faults, to be the more credible Prime Minister. And with Jeremy Corbyn poised to cling on to the leadership of the Labour Party after 9 June, that’s precisely why the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tom Kibasi writes in a personal capacity.