The triumph that wasn't

Theresa May and the general election gamble that failed

Prime Minister Theresa May went into the Queen’s Speech after a damaging general election.

But what are the lessons of a tumultuous campaign?

In the closing days of the election campaign, a senior minister whispered to me in the crush of a rally that the Conservatives were on for a comfortable majority or “our voters are being deceitful”.

On the day of the election itself, multiple conversations with Labour and Tory politicians reported the same thing. The evidence on the ground pointed to a clear Tory win.

Labour MPs talked of being “battered” outside London. During the campaign one senior Labour figure described it vividly: “We have to grit our teeth and watch the car crash happen.”

The leader’s office was expecting a Conservative majority of 40 or so, sources suggest.

Jeremy Corbyn’s team deny they were focusing on any particular number, but it was suggested that a hung parliament was, although at the upper end of their expectation, one of the scenarios they had under consideration.

Then again, a leaked copy of Labour’s prepared script for MPs doing interviews on election night suggested they were prepared for losses, trying to focus on their vote share, and the mistakes of the Tory campaign.

The script included tell-tale lines such as “this was always going to be a challenging election” and “the collapse of UKIP has clearly been a boost to the Conservatives since the referendum, but Labour has closed the gap”.

Over at Tory HQ, they were preparing for an increased majority. The blue balloons were tied outside the windows of the party’s smart Westminster office.

But voters weren’t having a bit of it, denying the Conservatives their victory, crashing Mrs May’s political authority, delighting Mr Corbyn’s supporters by overwhelming their expectations, and robbing his internal enemies in the Labour party of their excuse to move against him.

If only 50 people across just four seats had voted Conservative... the Tories would have effectively won a majority

What the atmosphere in politics now obscures is that Mrs May was, technically, the winner.

The Tories had more seats, more votes, and increased their overall share.

And if only 50 people across just four seats had voted Conservative, instead of voting for the winning candidate, the Tories would have effectively won a majority.

Yes, you read that right. If 50 people in four decisive constituencies, a crowd that would fit easily on a school bus, had voted for Theresa May’s party, she would have suffered a reputational hit by falling back, but still have been able to operate in parliament without help from other parties (because the seven Sinn Fein MPs won’t take up their seats 322 is an effective majority).

At the next level, she would have reached an absolute majority of 326 if the Conservatives had achieved a grand total of 794 extra votes in the right places. Yes, our politics changed overnight, but if only a tiny number of votes had gone the other way, the outcome would have been so different.

What the political parties are now trying to understand is how we ended up here, why their expectations were wrong.

The launch

At the start of the campaign the Tories looked like they would romp home.

MPs from both of the main parties had that reinforced on the doorstep, time and again. Those voters weren’t of course, telling porkie pies to political canvassers. But neither Tories nor Labour in their individual constituencies could do much more than talk to their own “promises” – households where they had had support before, or they could theoretically pick it up.

Especially in a brief campaign, candidates, short of time, and short of resources, were talking to voters whose track record they knew – they knocked on doors where it might have been worthwhile.

Traditional canvassing doesn’t therefore pick up what’s going on with people who haven’t voted before.

So as Labour were becoming more buoyant, appealing to young voters and new voters, it was possible to sense a change, but very hard to pick up the scale.

While everyone saw the response to Mr Corbyn at the rallies he attended around the country, the record of previous elections prompted scepticism about the impact that that would have on turnout.

Labour increased their appeal to new and young voters

Labour increased their appeal to new and young voters

“No-one picked up the surge in young people,” one senior minister now believes. “To my eternal frustration people are always fighting the election we’ve just had – we should have known after the referendum this was the election that young people would be switched on.”

Labour did a much, much better job of using technology to motivate those new voters too.

The prime minister was not completely convincing when she insisted she was taking nothing for granted

If private reflexes were wrong too, what makes the Tories’ metaphorical defeat so crushing is the almost total failure to manage public expectations.

From the start Downing Street insiders believed they might be in line for a majority of only about 50. Anything less than that would “be a disappointment”, I recall being told, but “still much better than what we’ve got”.

But early polls, and the local election results that pointed to a Labour wipeout, were arguably not stamped on hard enough by Conservative HQ.

The prime minister was not completely convincing when she insisted she was taking nothing for granted. It wasn’t totally credible because she only called the election believing that she would increase the majority by some margin.

The unexpected leader

Labour’s experience was almost the precise opposite of the Tories'. After a tumultuous two years in Westminster, seeming often not to be able to control his party, let alone events, expectations of Mr Corbyn were low from the start, both in terms of the polling, and the perception of his potential to win.

I remember when he first became the Labour leader, talking to senior members of his team about whether they believed they could turn him into a credible national figure, rather than a campaigner who had undoubtedly had huge success in mobilising the left.

Their view was always that the building blocks were there – when people saw him on his own terms they liked him. In the context of a general election campaign where he could be himself, rather than in the constraints of Westminster, the opportunity would be there for him to build much bigger levels of support.

The test was always whether the “Corbyn effect” that changed the Labour Party could be replicated to create a coalition of anti-Tory sentiment – whether Labour, former Lib Dems, Green voters or new voters – big enough to win.

“He is fundamentally a happy campaigner”

During the campaign, by appearing surrounded by his fans, giving more or less the same passionate stump speech time after time, Mr Corbyn was simply exposed to more and more people on his own terms, and pictured surrounded by people hugely enthused by him, creating more of the same energy.

He is fundamentally a happy campaigner and thrived in the closing weeks, comfortable among the crowds. I remember hearing him after a couple of interviews, turn to an aide and enthusiastically ask: “Is it selfie time?”

The “big mo” - the enthusiasm and energy in the campaign - was certainly on his side, not the Conservatives’. That is not, however, always what actually determines the result. Despite Labour joy that they did better than they expected, one senior figure said this week “remember it was Dunkirk, not D-Day”.

Arguably Labour’s advances now present as much of a risk as an opportunity. There is another story in what happens to Labour next. It’s still divided on many issues, and on Jeremy Corbyn’s real capabilities.

Remember that some of the MPs who increased their majorities unashamedly promised their constituents on the doorsteps that he would be gone after the election and, more to the point, that they’d help remove him.

And as the party ponders its future, it might be wise to consider the advice of a Labour Party sage who argues: “This was the worst Tory campaign in 50 years, and we still lost.”

The gloomy campaign

The Conservative effort was a bad campaign. In truth, the verdict on any election machine is really the result - a dire few weeks followed by a victory scrubs memories of poor performance.

But this time, the campaign really was poor, and this time, it really mattered. At the manifesto launch I asked Mrs May if she was not setting out a bleak picture of the country.

One Conservative MP now describes [the party manifesto] as “more gloomy than the Book of Revelations”

Her team had set a lot of store in her ability to take the tough decisions, to “make the hard choices”. I’d been told by senior insiders their private polling ratings for her as a leader were “off the charts”.

This gave them the confidence to sketch out a manifesto that was more hard graft and gruel than milk and honey. One Conservative MP now describes it as “more gloomy than the Book of Revelations”.

Philip Hammond and David Davis at a campaign event: Fear of Corbyn was a key plank of Conservative strategy

Philip Hammond and David Davis at a campaign event: Fear of Corbyn was a key plank of Conservative strategy

The theme of hard choices was meant to play into their chosen campaign focus of leadership. Could it have worked?

Until the manifesto was launched, voters we met were offering opinions on her that seemed nearly always favourable. We heard time and again different versions of “I’m normally Labour but I like Theresa May”.

She wasn’t slick, “didn’t seem like those other Tories”, was less posh than David Cameron, and was straight. The kind of character, perhaps like your child’s headteacher, who made voters want to stand up properly, pay attention, and not protest too much.

But her plans for social care in England were a hard choice too far for many voters. The idea had been in the works, along with some other considerations, across government for many months. But the final version in the manifesto, swiftly branded the “dementia tax”, was a political disaster.

Lib Dem campaigners try to draw attention to Conservative care policy proposals

Lib Dem campaigners try to draw attention to Conservative care policy proposals

Within days, unlike any other previous leader, she had publicly redrafted one of her main manifesto promises. That was problem enough. But the perception of her being straight, unlike other politicians, was trashed by her insistence in front of the cameras, when asked again and again, that nothing had changed about her policy. Plainly, there had been a significant move.

In contrast to Jeremy Corbyn's rallies, May's public appearances were carefully controlled

While Westminster is extremely unforgiving of the dreaded political U-turn, I’ve often felt voters are more understanding.

We all change our minds in normal life, but that tolerance has to meet one vital condition, that the politician admits they have shifted.

For Mrs May to try to front out the change, pretending the policy was exactly the same, killed off one of the most valuable aspects of her brand as a politician. She suddenly was, in some voters’ minds, just as slippery as the rest.

Refusing to give details on how many people would be hit by changes to winter fuel allowance, failing to explain why and how millions of primary school children would lose their free school meals while the most in need kept theirs, suggesting the Conservatives might revisit the vote on fox hunting - the difficulties began to pile-up.

29 May: Anti-hunting protesters demonstrate against Theresa May's plans to hold a vote on the subject

29 May: Anti-hunting protesters demonstrate against Theresa May's plans to hold a vote on the subject

Beyond the problems with the grim manifesto, as one of her now departed chiefs of staff has accepted, the Tory party simply ran the wrong campaign for her.

Their polling numbers suggested the best plan was to make it all about the leader. To run a presidential-style campaign in the UK - as the Tories did around David Cameron, and Labour did around Tony Blair - you need the candidate to be willing, and comfortable with what that requires.

While Mrs May answered hundreds of press questions, and attended dozens of events, she is simply not the type of politician who is comfortable in situations that are unpredictable, that might go wrong.

“Allowing herself to eat a single chip in front of cameras felt like a truly daring act”

I suspect, strangely for someone in her position, she is fundamentally rather shy when it comes to her own image.

Aides told me after we carried out her only interview during the referendum campaign last year that she asked her husband to watch it, rather than look at it herself, as she was so nervous about how she had come across.

At campaign events, as at political summits, she nearly always builds in 20-30 minutes of preparation time once at the venue before appearing in front of the cameras – the only politician I have covered who takes that kind of time.

Theresa May “didn't look like she was enjoying the campaign”

Theresa May “didn't look like she was enjoying the campaign”

This desire for preparation may be laudable. Government officials have previously talked flatteringly of this as an attribute. She wants to read everything, study everything, reflect and prepare.

But the combustible atmosphere of a campaign requires something else – a nimbleness, a lightness of touch, a willingness to busk it sometimes, and take the odd public risk. Privately, the prime minister is known to have a sense of humour. But on the road with Theresa May, allowing herself to eat a single chip in front of cameras felt like a truly daring act.

Her team were not particularly more controlling than those of other prime ministers that I have trekked around the country with. But the taut public atmosphere that surrounded her was tangible. She didn’t look like she was enjoying the campaign, so why would her efforts appeal to anyone else?

Mrs May did not take part in the televised leaders' debate

Mrs May did not take part in the televised leaders' debate

Her decision not to take part in the televised leaders’ debate led to complaints from opponents that she lacked “guts”. If elections really are a tactical game, Jeremy Corbyn took the points by turning up. There was no big breakthrough moment that night but what impact did her non-appearance have on voters?

I spoke to some members of the audience right after the debate had wrapped up. Even some Tory voters said they were pretty fed up that the prime minister hadn’t “bothered” to turn up. The calculation was based on the traditional notion that in a campaign, the frontrunner has no incentive to debate the underdog. The Tories believed it was the right call that night – Theresa May wasn’t part of what some described as a "rabble".

But it did make an impression on the electorate, not least because the Labour campaign brought it up again and again.

Terrible events

The hoped for “strong and stable” image morphed into accusations that Theresa May was simply a robot, unable to respond to changing situations, to rise to political challenges.

Since the election that perception has been intensified by her response to the Grenfell Tower disaster. No 10 considered carefully whether she should visit the scene on the day after. She did, but only privately met the emergency services and some volunteers. In contrast, Mr Corbyn was filmed meeting residents and locals caught up in the disaster.

Grenfell Tower, west London, scene of a devastating fire which left dozens dead

Grenfell Tower, west London, scene of a devastating fire which left dozens dead

There was obvious caution in Number 10 about what was a very fast moving situation. They were well aware that it left them open to accusations she looked uncaring. But on balance, cautious of being vulnerable to accusations of making political capital, distracting from the emergency effort, or being there, and unable to answer families’ questions, they decided not to, and not to alert the media to her visit.

This meant all that emerged were stilted photographs from a distance of the prime minister with uniformed emergency services. In the following days she met victims of the disaster but faced cries of "coward" from an angry crowd when she left a local church. She also met families at Downing Street.

Mrs May drew criticism for an initial visit to Grenfell Tower where she did not meet stricken residents

Mrs May drew criticism for an initial visit to Grenfell Tower where she did not meet stricken residents

Politics can call for empathy as well as leadership - the initial inability to visit more directly was a mistake. With Mrs May on the scene the afternoon after the terror attack at Finsbury Park, it’s a lesson No 10 seems now to have learnt.

The other awful terror attacks that slammed the brakes on the election campaign not once, but twice, had rammed Mrs May’s rigidity home to voters, and in the process overturned years of political assumptions.

As the terrible truth of the Manchester, and then the London Bridge attacks sank in, the prime minister was tested like never before, and her record as home secretary was called into question.

Police form a cordon across London Bridge, shortly after the 3 June attack there

Police form a cordon across London Bridge, shortly after the 3 June attack there

Although there was enormous praise for the emergency services at both events, before too long warnings made to her about police cuts during her time as home secretary began to surface.

It is true that there is no consensus about the impact that the loss of 20,000 police officers in England has had. Some experts, like the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile, believe it has had no effect on Britain’s ability to deal with terrorism. Overall crime has fallen during that period too.

An armed officer on patrol near the site of the Manchester attack

An armed officer on patrol near the site of the Manchester attack

On the other side, there is a very appealing logic to the argument that suggests that of course it has had an impact. How can you possibly make a case that the loss of that number of officers has had no effect?

In the bewildering, upsetting aftermaths of those terrible two events, it was entirely predictable that voters would start asking more questions about public protection.

Mrs May’s political rivals began to pile on pressure about the levels of policing. It took the political fight straight to her record as home secretary, shoving the Conservatives on to the defensive in the final phases of the campaign, pushing at the bruise that the manifesto had left.

Theresa May was quizzed on police cuts following the London Bridge attack

Theresa May was quizzed on police cuts following the London Bridge attack

In one speech, which was designed to get the campaign back on track, even held in the same room where Mrs May launched her bid for the leadership, she was asked seven times in a row by journalists, myself included, about police cuts.

Seven times she gave almost exactly the same answer, more or less denying there was a problem, and not really appearing to understand the public’s concerns.

There is still a complicated argument about the effect of police numbers. But elections are painted with bold brush strokes, and for Labour, the issue was the perfect political opportunity to marry up contemporary events that had shaken the country with one of their central political objectives, the argument against austerity.

Whereas the 2015 campaign was sometimes an arms race to see which party could sound tougher on the deficit, the issue more or less disappeared this time round.

Sorting out the deficit is still important to the Tories, but far from the central selling point it was in the Cameron-Osborne project. During this campaign the Conservatives had chosen not to put the justifications for spending cuts centre stage in their campaign, leaving them doubly vulnerable to the attack.

Tory and Labour MPs soon reported back that the attack on police cuts was playing on the public’s minds on the doorstep. Labour had found a policy criticism that damaged Mrs May in particular. It was a specific and meaningful real life example of the practical consequences of the cuts with the Conservative leader unwilling, or unable, to defend her case deftly or with much conviction.

For Mr Corbyn and Labour it was a perfect mash-up of austerity and security. He was vulnerable on security, criticised frequently by the Tories for his views on the nuclear deterrent, his attitude to foreign policy. But by zeroing in on police cuts, it was an issue that didn’t just put Mrs May under pressure on his favoured topic of austerity, but also went some way to neutralise one of his perceived negatives.

The Conservatives had long been considered the party of law and order – but perhaps not in this election. And the issue allied a tangible statistic to a general sense that, Tory ministers acknowledge themselves, was perhaps already stirring.

For year after year since 2010, the public sector has been under real pressure. The coalition’s first layer of cuts gave rise to assumptions in some political quarters that you could keep slicing at public sector budgets and not feel much political pain.

March 2017: A march against NHS cuts. Labour was able to benefit from public unease at continued austerity

March 2017: A march against NHS cuts. Labour was able to benefit from public unease at continued austerity

Overall, public sector spending has continued to increase in cash terms. But taking inflation into consideration, it’s roughly the same - and there’s much stronger demand for the health service, and an increasing population. There’s no question some parts of the public sector have experienced seven years of tightening budgets, and the consequences could no longer be ignored.

Labour was able to benefit not just from growing public unease, but also from a number of parallel campaigns that were not necessarily party political.

On school cuts for example, the unions drove a significant campaign - headteachers even wrote home to families warning of the impact of school funding changes. That was not of course a direct instruction to parents round the country to vote Labour, but another component in developing a sense of unease about the Conservative government.

The outcome

The Labour campaign was more open to using technology to its maximum effect. Whether on Whatsapp, Twitter or Facebook, the Tories had the bigger chequebook, but it was Labour that exploited technology to a much more significant advantage.

They repeated some of the techniques used by Mr Corbyn’s supporters in his first and second leadership elections and that effectively spread the word around new voters or others who hadn’t voted for years.

New left-of-centre news sites have developed rapidly in the last couple of years, ready to spread Mr Corbyn’s message, not just with a less than traditional consideration for facts, but also with a knack of creating content that’s easily and entertainingly shared online.

Labour did a much better job of finding new voters, and speaking to undecided voters, in the places they spend much of their time - online. And an ethos that was less controlling allowed other organisations and activists in to share the load of campaigning.

Without question this was a significant factor that pulled in and excited first-time voters, including the critical drive to get them to register to vote to start with.

In complete contrast, the Tories super-centralised campaign left little space for friendly sympathisers, and while they had the spending power, they didn’t have the sentiment.

Ironically, in 2015 the Tories did have a relatively extensive campaign drive for young activists - a “road trip” that flooded constituencies with activists and had a sizeable online presence.

But the stories of bullying and controversial behaviour that emerged after the election, as well as the investigation over election expenses, put paid to that project. To the frustration of some inside Conservative HQ, it was never replaced. And in the last seven weeks, it showed.

Near the start of the campaign, one senior Tory told me they wanted the campaign to be as “traditional as it can be”. In 2017, that proved to be a naïve and bad call.

In these volatile days there are all sorts of attempts to reach sweeping conclusions about what the public was trying to say.

For me, it’s just not that simple, but a gloriously tangled web of reasons and rationales. There was effectively a different underlying question on the ballot paper in Scotland for example - whether to have a second independence referendum. That drove the decisions for many voters, taking the shine from Nicola Sturgeon’s now wonky crown.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon - her party lost seats...

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon - her party lost seats...

It would have been unthinkable a few years ago, but it was the Scottish Conservatives that saved Mrs May, introducing a new Tory power, in its leader Ruth Davidson, to a broader national stage. Labour in Scotland didn’t collapse either, putting on seats. the Scottish Conservatives, led by Ruth Davidson the Scottish Conservatives, led by Ruth Davidson

But the referendum has indeed seemed to remove UKIP’s reason for being – the party has travelled some distance now from national relevance. Their voters did not move overwhelmingly to the Tories, but split out between them and the Labour Party.

Former UKIP leader Paul Nuttall - the party lost votes both to the Conservatives and Labour

Former UKIP leader Paul Nuttall - the party lost votes both to the Conservatives and Labour

For the Lib Dems, there was no grand resurgence, but they did pick up a few more seats.

And the wallpaper of the election - Brexit - motivated different voters in different ways. In some seats, certainly, Labour held off Conservative opposition because of the prime minister’s stance on Brexit. But that happened in reverse too.

Former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron - his party ended up with 12 MPs 

Former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron - his party ended up with 12 MPs 

And for millions of voters, of course, day-to-day considerations helped make their minds up too. Again, the Tory calculation that made this campaign all about the leadership required for a political process proved a mistake.

What, dear voter, are you more affected by? The form of the British negotiating team in Brussels during a 20-month session of political hard bargaining? Or the letter that came home in your child’s school bag from the headteacher warning they might have to sack two teachers because of their shrinking budget?

What this election notably did feature was a bigger difference between the two main political parties than we have seen for some time. And when that was on offer, voters returned to those two traditional tribes in a way we haven’t seen for years.

It’s impossible to conclude purely that this election was a wholesale rejection of the prime minister’s view on Brexit, or a general howl of pain against austerity, or an electoral slam dunk for Mr Corbyn’s different vision and more radical manifesto.

Voters are too complex, too wonderfully varied, too differently motivated to have their views stuffed into pigeonholes in such straightforward ways.

This election result leaves the country now in the most unstable political state for years. What it stunningly and decisively was not, was the election that Theresa May had expected.

She is now stuck with the most painful irony. The prime minister called this election, at least in part to insulate herself from the demands of her own party, to achieve a mandate that would free her to stand up to her backbenches, and give her breathing space in Brussels.

In contrast, the result damned her with faint praise. Her own reputation crashed, arguably faster than any other in modern British political times.

She now looks set to be dependent on support from a tiny party, the DUP, that only represents one part of the United Kingdom, whose past views and record have alarmed some Conservatives.

Only four weeks after a set of local elections where she swept all before her, the general election humbled her, weakened her, leaving Theresa May a “wounded antelope” in the words of one of her senior colleagues.

An election called to show who was in charge ended with politicians being given a striking reminder. It is not them, but the public who is the boss.