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James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
The overwhelming short-term goal for the Conservatives is keeping Corbyn out of Number Ten. Everything else is secondary. As Prime Minister, Corbyn would unleash the most irresponsible set of giveaways ever seen. It’d bankrupt the country, but force the Conservatives to loudly oppose his plans – making the party outrageously unpopular with vast swathes of the electorate. Look at how difficult it’s been to change tax credits or the universal winter fuel allowance.
Keeping Corbyn out requires four things.
First, immediately, MPs must throw their support behind Theresa May. Corbyn came close last time, and would stand a greater chance in an election against a chaotic Conservative Party. Until it’s ready to fight again, the Tories should keep May in place.
Second, as Mark and Paul have suggested, the party needs to review its campaign function. I don’t have anything to add to their comments, other than to emphasise this must include a detailed review of whether the electorate has genuinely changed for the long-term, or whether there were specific circumstances that caused certain groups – the young, most obviously – to turn out in greater numbers than before. Again, the party can’t fight until it properly understands the battleground.
Third, the party needs to launch a new campaign targeted at the working class and lower middle class with popular policies attached. In effect, they should launch the election campaign they should have run. While a review will undoubtedly reveal new electoral targets (and vulnerabilities), this group of people – the mass of C1/C2 voters – amount to around half the electorate and are the foundation for a successful campaign.
May’s pivot to focus on those just about managing was right. But, as I wrote at the time, the first autumn statement and budget were essentially devoid of policies that would appeal to ordinary voters. And what was true in her first months governing was true of the election campaign. She both governed and campaigned in prose.
The party should consider itself at the beginning of a long election campaign and use the (now delayed) Queen’s Speech for a relaunch. This column began with a long list of policy ideas that would appeal to ordinary voters. Others will no doubt have better ideas but the point is there are plenty of popular policy ideas the party can choose from. She needs some announcements fast.
Fourth, and finally, the party should be preparing to unite behind Boris Johnson in a new election campaign. When the ship has been steadied and the party has secured better ratings in the polls, the party should move May out and put Boris Johnson in by MP acclamation. A new election cannot be that far away and the party needs a proven winner in place for that. Johnson isn’t perfect, and acclamation isn’t the ideal method. But the Conservatives face a crisis and must take action accordingly.
May wasn’t stupid to call an election early. She was the best part of 20 points up against a weak opponent in charge of a shambles of a party. Most importantly, it’s very likely that Brexit negotiations will be extremely traumatic – with talks potentially stalling and businesses threatening to leave Britain. The party therefore ought to be ready to fight again soon and should take battle to Corbyn again under the leadership of a proven campaigner like Johnson.