The Conservatives’ current operation inside Number 10 Downing Street is led by those who ran the successful Vote Leave campaign. They are: Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Priti Patel. And behind the scenes: Dominic Cummings and Rob Oxley. Despite the chaotic scenes of the past few weeks, they do have a plan, and it may just bring electoral victory to the Conservative Party.
The strategy though, has not been faultless. The Government misjudged Jeremy Corbyn by underestimating his reluctance towards a general election, and so their best chance of winning a majority now hangs on securing a Brexit deal ahead of the nationwide vote in late November. A no-deal Brexit may be the direction the polarisation of the debate is taking us, but it is still not a preferred choice by the majority of the public (with 50 per cent of Tory Leavers and 40 per cent of Labour Leavers wanting a ‘deal’). And, it is worth considering how the calls for no-deal only sapped support from the Conservatives in response to May’s failure to complete Brexit by the promised deadline of March 31st — rather than as a result of her deal.
Shout Out UK has conducted analysis of the 100 most marginal constituencies in the country, which gives us a better understanding of who the Conservatives will need to draw support from to explain their current strategy. Out of the 100 tightest seats in the UK, 34 are possible targets for the Conservative Party to win, with the least likely of these only needing a 5 per cent swing to the party from Labour.
Out of the 34 targets, 22 of these seats voted Leave, explaining the party’s shift towards taking a harder Brexit stance under Boris Johnson. In order to win these areas, the party will need to achieve two things. Firstly, neutralise the threat of the Brexit Party by securing a successful Brexit deal that would dissipate their calls of a ‘sell out’. Secondly, they will then need to persuade Labour leavers to switch sides.
Of the 22 Leave targets, 20 voted Labour at the last election, with the closest being Dudley North (by 22 votes) and Newcastle-Under-Lyme(30 votes). The current strategy in Number 10 is two-fold: to persuade these voters of the risk Corbyn poses as prime minister, whilst simultaneously providing evidence that the Conservatives can be the party of the NHS and public services.
The first of these is reflected in a recent video add launched on Facebook by the party titled ‘Corbyn Schooled in 5 Minutes’ where Boris Johnson attacks the Labour Leader in Parliament. This was deliberately targeted at only men over the age of 35 (which aims to exploit recent YouGov polling suggesting that only 6 per cent of Brexit voters are favourable to Corbyn, compared to 70 per cent for Johnson).
Meanwhile, the party aims to extend its coalition of support by ditching its unpopular label as a party of austerity. This they intend to do through investment in areas where the greatest impact will be felt: crime, health, and education. Downing Street clearly believes this can attract younger people and more women to the party, evidenced in the way they targeted a Facebook advertisement promoting an extra £14billion to schools. This was aimed mainly at middle-aged parents and some younger voters, with only 8 per cent of those who saw the add being aged 65 plus. This is compared to nearly 60 per cent of the audience for an advert accusing MPs of ignoring Brexit belonging to that age group.
In a sense, this is the same strategy that was deployed by the Vote Leave campaign: the combining together of views on the EU, with anger felt at being ‘neglected’ and left behind as a result of a lack of Government investment. However, this was successful because, despite being led by mainly Conservative politicians, the campaign was seen as anti-establishment and in opposition to David Cameron’s Tory Government. This time, though, Boris Johnson runs the risk of being tainted by the very same Tory brand that he attacked in 2016. After all, he is now its leader, rather than a rebellious outsider.
Elections are decided as much by gut as calculated thought, particularly in areas such as Dudley, that have been staunchly anti-Tory since Thatcher’s economic policies tore away the social fabric of these once thriving industrial areas. For the Prime Minister to be successful, he will need to ensure that Brexit continues to dominate the agenda while the look and feel of the Cameron-led Tory Party is slowly eroded. His decision to expel 21 Remain Tory MPs as proof of his Brexit credentials, and the ditching of tighter fiscal rules of the last two Conservative chancellors, are bold moves intended to show just that.
Johnson may be helped in this by the impossible situation Labour faces at an upcoming election. Labour faces the possibility of being haemorrhaged by both Remain and Leave voters if Brexit dominates the conversation. Out of the 100 closest marginals, the party is defending 31 of these. Problematic for the party, though, is that 8 of these are heavily Leave (Leave over 60 per cent), and all have the Conservatives in second place. Amongst these are Crewe and Nantwich that Labour won by 48 votes in 2017 from the Tories, but which now faces a Leave margin of 60.3 per cent. Meanwhile, Remain parties also threaten. The Lib Dems are likely to take the student-populated Remain Sheffield Hallam, and the SNP are likely to take 5 of the 11 Remain marginals Labour is defending in Scotland.
It is because of these circumstances that the Conservatives have focused all their attention on domestic policy issues in their social media advertisements.
The Brexit conundrum has turned politics into a game of political survival, with neither side too confident in revealing their cards but instead choosing to rely on their most loyal supporters. Labour aim to achieve this by rerunning its 2017 left-wing socialist manifesto, strong on pubic services, and high on spending; whilst the Lib Dems hope to inspire their base, by becoming a staunchly Remain party. However, the Conservatives being fully aware of their core being under attack from the Brexit Party, have launched upon a high-risk strategy. Their aim is to win voters from Labour in addition to revitalising their grassroots under the new Brexit Government.
Whilst the Opposition look after their own troops, Boris Johnson is charging over the electoral battlefield, aiming to win over Leave voters who trusted him back in 2016. But he is fighting under a different flag. Can the emotive instincts of Labour Brexiteers (in particular) be persuaded to upturn years of loyalty, and forget the past?