David Blunkett used to say a successful government gets its betrayals in early. It is no less true that a campaigning party that senses it is going to lose an election starts honing its excuses long before polling day. When on the back foot, Labour always complains about the media, and will do so again if it suffers a heavy defeat on 8 June. This time, however, the party is also preparing to blame its leader as unambiguously as possible: “It was Jezza wot lost it.” The resolve with which the movement is readying itself to throw Jeremy Corbyn under the bus is matched only by the certainty with which it re-elected him as leader eight months ago.
Look at the polls, say senior Labour figures: the voters love our policies, but will not accept Jeremy as a prospective prime minister. And there is some truth in this. According to a ComRes poll in the Mirror last week, the public expresses strong support for the party’s plans for renationalisation, income tax increases on those earning more than £80,000 (Dh378,378) a year and a cap on the state pension age. Yet 56 per cent of respondents thought Corbyn would be a “disaster” as prime minister. A YouGov survey in the Sunday Times told a similar story: broad support for many of Labour’s proposals, but not for a Labour government. Instead, Theresa May’s party has clambered to 49 per cent, the highest mark recorded by YouGov in this campaign, 18 points ahead of the opposition.
From this stew of statistics is emerging a narrative that must be appealing in its simplicity: if only Labour were not held back by its inadequate leader, the party, with its glorious ideas, would already be romping home to Downing Street and the creation of a New Jerusalem. We’re right, we just picked the wrong guy.
In politics, the distinction between identity and ideology is a wholly false dichotomy. Any quest for elective office depends upon the aggregation of policies in a candidacy, or multiple candidacies. A political party is much more than a clipboard for appealing proposals, an issue-based campaign body such as the RSPB or Save the Children. It is an organisation that seeks power for the leader and his or her team in order to enact a series of conviction-based policies. What Labour — not just Corbyn, but Labour — has lost is the capacity it had, not so long ago, to persuade the voters that it was up to the task.
Since the election was called, the Tories have pursued a mirror-image strategy to Labour’s. Aside from a handful of promises — on energy caps, overseas aid and council housing — the campaign has been entirely draped over the personality and character of the prime minister. Her cabinet, her party and its parliamentary candidates all linger in her shadow. This is, by design, a one-woman show.
And, so far, the strategy is working. The Tories know that the art of political persuasion observes a sequence. Trust and respect come first: without sufficient belief in the competence, trajectory and (always a problem for the Conservatives) motives of a party, it is sunk. Until these broad brushstrokes are painted to the voters’ satisfaction, nothing else matters.
Which is not to say that the Tory manifesto will be unimportant or a mere footnote in the story of May’s preordained march to glory. Precisely because its contents have been such a closely guarded secret, the weight of expectation it must satisfy is growing daily. Even if, as predicted, the finished document is slim, it should not appear deliberately undernourished.
It must also achieve three distinct objectives. First, and most obviously, it must present a blueprint for power that rises above mere generalities and slogans. Second, it has to liberate May from the myriad constraints of the 2015 manifesto, and the attendant impression that she is at the helm of a hand-me-down government. And third, as the PM approaches her negotiations with Brussels, it must rid her of the outlandish and (in some cases) downright misleading claims of last year’s leave campaigns. There was never the slightest chance that departing the EU would yield a dividend for the NHS of £350 million a week. But — until she has her own distinct mandate for Brexit — May will be dogged, not unreasonably, by this and the other promises of the 2016 referendum.
It is precisely because the hardest times lie ahead that she is seeking this mandate now. Cruel as it may be to say it, beating Corbyn is the least of her worries. Which is absolutely no consolation to Labour, as it ponders ways of explaining just why its supposed brilliance is so unlikely to be rewarded three weeks hence.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Matthew d’Ancona writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He was previously editor of the Spectator and also writes for the Evening Standard and GQ.