When Theresa May announced her cabinet last July, I remember thinking how it seemed redolent of John Major’s cabinet: incompetent, crooked and potentially sleazy. Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary? You’re having a laugh! The disgraced former Defence Secretary, Liam Fox as Brexit Secretary? What have you been smoking? Priti Patel as International Development Secretary after she said how she wanted to see the department abolished? Did I fall asleep and wake up in Bizarro World?
Last week, a friend and I were chatting about the election when he said to me “I think the Tories are trying to throw the election”. “Really?”, I asked. “I wouldn’t credit them with that much intelligence”. To be sure, May’s Tories are an arrogant bunch but brainy? I don’t think so.
When May called the election a few weeks back, it reminded me of Ted Heath’s petulant ‘Who Governs Britain’ snap election campaign in 1974. Heath, whose own government was pretty incompetent, went to the country confident of a massive victory. He lost. Like May, Heath’s campaign was run along narrow lines. For Heath, it was about his macho image and facing down the National Union of Mineworkers. For May, it’s apparently about getting a mandate for the Brexit negotiations. Something she already got when Article 50 was passed by the Commons. The Cat thinks the negotiations should be conducted by representatives from all the parliamentary parties and the party in government, but that’s a subject for another blog.
Few people can be in any doubt as to how shambolically the Tory election campaign has been run. From the day she called the election to the launch of the manifesto and now the sudden and apparent volte face over the what’s been dubbed the Dementia Tax, the Tory campaign has been a disaster. Not even the exceptionally dull ‘Strong and Stable’ slogan can mask the evident ineptitude with which the campaign has been conducted.
Compare Corbyn’s campaign to that of May. Corbyn is happy pressing the flesh, having selfies taken with people and holding babies. When May’s been exposed to the public, she looks uncomfortable. She’s not a people person. I mean, when did you last see her having a selfie taken with one of her followers? May’s appearances around the country have been highly stage-managed and local reporters have been locked away from the main event, while specially selected journalists are permitted to ask Chairman May vetted questions.
What about that manifesto? Oh, the manifesto. Didn’t that seem as though it was thrown together at the last minute? When Labour launched their manifesto last Tuesday it was met with the predictable sneers and swipes. All of our favourite clichés were summoned up: “it doesn’t add up”, “Labour is the party of high taxation”, that sort of thing. But Labour’s manifesto pledges of the renationalization of key infrastructure, the abolition of university tuition fees and general decency – all of them popular – put the weak and unstable Tories into a spin. The day following Labour’s manifesto launch, the Tories arranged a hasty press conference where they ‘warned’ (sic) of the ‘dangers’ of electing Jeremy Corbyn (not the Labour Party). It was panicky and, frankly, the whole spectacle was rather comical. The dismal May and her equally dismal sidekick, Philip Hammond, trotted out their stock of anti-Labour tropes. “There’s a black hole in Labour’s manifesto” claimed Hammond. Actually, Phil, the black hole is in your mind.
There’s a vacuum at the heart of Tory thinking and, at times, it’s felt as though the Tories have recycled the 1992, 2010 and 2015 General Election campaigns and simply pressed them together in the hope that no one would notice. Themes from each of those campaigns have made an appearance in this campaign: the tax bombshell, the bold claims of being ‘economically competent’ and the ‘coalition of chaos’ have all been dusted down, patched up and sent out to fight the enemy once more. But this is a combatant that should be seeing out its last days in a retirement home instead of being ordered to fight again. Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor, the Tories’ apparent election masterminds, have clearly lost their touch. Maybe they should employ someone like, say, John McTernan instead? He couldn’t do any worse, then again…
I can’t remember when a manifesto u-turn has happened in the middle of a General Election. Surely this is a first?