My take on the Conservative campaign
I write today as a life-long Conservative who has stood for Parliament twice and held positions as a media adviser and press officer to a Party leader and to the national Party. Last month, I wrote a confident column about Mrs May’s election promise, today it is very different.
James Wharton is a friend of mine and was a fine Minister who put the North East and Teesside first. In Conservative Government with fewer members in the North than the South, he was our region’s finest ambassador. If 444 people in his constituency had voted Conservative rather than Labour he would still be in situ and the North East would have one of its most effective voices in Government. He should be given a role at the centre of Government. So, forgive me, as I write this at the weekend after the election, if I reflect a little on what could have been if the national Conservative campaign hadn’t been so bloody terrible.
But before I use this column to vent some frustration let me take a breath….ahh that’s better…and reflect that the Conservatives did come first in last week’s election. Reflect that we have as many Conservative MPs in the North East as we did before the election; that we also have a great new Conservative Mayor in Tees Valley; that seats like Hexham and Berwick, which once hung by a thread for us, have enormously capable Conservative MPs with substantially increased majorities; and that in strong Labour areas, like Bishop Auckland, Labour is reduced to clinging on with barely 500 votes in surplus! Jeremy Corbyn did no better than Gordon Brown in electoral terms.
However, it could have been very much better. Firstly, there could have been no election. In my part of the world, voters have now been to the polls four times in two years. Election fatigue has set in. They have been asked who was in charge and what they wanted, and told us to get on with it. This last time of asking resulted in a collective huff, as if to say: ‘if you need to ask, then its not just you, share power if you can’t do it alone.’
When the Conservatives asked us to back Mrs May, most people wanted to do so. She was seen as a rational and capable person and, as far as I am concerned, she still is. However, the national campaign to promote her was ill-conceived and poorly implemented.
Policies can be argued about forever and a day and the manifesto contained many very good ideas. It also contained a couple of ridiculous notions – why even mention fox hunting? It is a matter of personal opinion for MPs so why put it in the national policy document? The social care policy had some merit, the ingredients were all there but it was presented half-baked.
The policy on Brexit and the excellent record on the economy were seams that deserved to be mined properly. Ministers could have been directed to business success stories and to areas where a solid Brexit would provide opportunity for growth. Every visit to a global exporter was an argument for global trade. Every visit to a fish ‘n’ chip shop was an argument for Brexit, as it will result in control of our fishing waters again! Every road that is being built could be shown as investment in the economy, every business that is recruiting makes a case for growth and entrepreneurship.
Yet the Conservative road tours by Ministers were organised by a few officials who had little time to prepare and who rejected help from outsiders. The fact that candidates were sought last minute for winnable seats meant that the rush to arms resulted in poor planning for the actual campaign.
Poor implementation was seen every day. For example, when Mrs May came to Teesside, I know for a fact, her London-based team were given three solid choices of venue for the visit. Two had a backdrop of the iconic Transport Bridge, they rejected these for reasons entirely disconnected with the need for good local TV pictures. She gave her ‘Brexit fight back’ speech on Teesside at an earth digger dealership; great yellow machines used to build our roads, factories and houses were everywhere. Yet, she stood in front of a bland backdrop that covered up the machinery and made no reference to the brilliant business she was visiting and the opportunity it would have to grow as a result of a good Brexit deal! Most politicians would have been photographed at the controls of the diggers but Mrs May was ushered away. She made her case well but big opportunities for a strong local impact were missed. Despite this, the excellent local candidate she visited, Simon Clarke, won.
When national radio reporters and TV companies came North to look at local Conservative campaigns, local candidates needed to fend for themselves; some did very well, others were overwhelmed by running their local campaigns at the same time as dealing with high level media enquiries.
Then, there was the so-called targeting. Everything was thrown at targeting Labour seats – some with frankly impenetrable majorities - rather than supporting sitting MPs and co-ordinating efforts to genuinely winnable seats. Had local party members on the ground been asked, more human resources would have been poured into Darlington, Bishop Auckland and Stockton and, as a result, more doorstep conversations held. Labour does this very well and we saw the result; three more Labour MPs than there could have been.
Mrs May’s personal ratings were not a fortress against a campaign that made strategic, tactical and operational mistakes almost everyday. I’ll make no friends in the Conservative Party for writing all this but the friends who lost their seats as a result will see why some of it needs saying. Mrs May has talented ministers around her, a good set of policies to implement and, for the time-being, a benign economy. She now needs to regain her magic touch. She should focus on maintaining economic growth, reject punitive tax rises for business and wealth creators and clear the decks to do a good Brexit deal. As Rab Bulter once said, politics is the ‘art of the possible’, it is possible to govern with the seats she has won. It is possible to focus on the big issues and to do the peoples’ work. It is possible for the Conservative Party to turn the support it won in 2017 into a majority in five years time.