Memo: To campaign managers in the Tory leadership election

Conservative MPs have begun the process of electing a new leader. Based on my experience of leadership contests - including one as campaign manager - I think there are some smart steps to take and pitfalls to avoid.

May, Leadsom and Gove have all survived the first round of voting in the Tory leadership contest (pic credit: PA Wire)
May, Leadsom and Gove have all survived the first round of voting in the Tory leadership contest (pic credit: PA Wire)
Character matters more than policy. So the campaign needs to play to the strengths of the candidate’s character while addressing any negatives. This needs to be supported by the ‘vision thing’: a compelling narrative for the party and country. 

This will need a ‘big idea’ to help define a weak, or low-profile candidate. Michael Gove’s comms challenge is character, not vision-based.  May, the reverse.  As the relative unknown, Andrea Leadsom is having to play both cards. 

Successful campaigns are based on knowing your candidate and the three As: your audience, advocates and agenda. 

Setting the terms of debate is key. Iconic positions will set media and political agendas. These need to be challenging, yet authentic to the politician. 

The candidates should avoid getting ‘into the weeds’ on policy, or pursuing fringe, or pet issues. These will not resonate and may compound negative perceptions. (Think Portillo and the legalisation of cannabis.) In particular, there are three aspects to focus on:

Messages: Define yourself, don’t be defined by your critics. This rests on really understanding your audience. Being 'on message' only matters if it resonates. In which case, clarity about the purpose, platform and credibility of the candidate is critical. Stephen Crabb suffered on this last point - compounded by a truncated timetable giving him minimal opportunity to establish his personal brand.

Advocates: You are judged by the company you keep. The power of association can be decisive. High-profile advocates need to be 'landed and leveraged' according to what they 'say' about the candidate. Timing of announcements is also key, primarily to maintain momentum.

Optics: Image matters more than it should. A picture can speak louder than a thousand words. Reputations and campaigns have been defined on negative images and optics. Think of David Miliband smiling and holding a banana when he was in the spotlight as a contender to Gordon Brown. Or John Redwood, launching his bid to topple John Major, when he was flanked by a handful of maverick MPs wearing club ties and blazers.

Expectation management is key in any contest. Leadership elections require momentum to build over the course of the contest. Any pause and the front-runner can seem vulnerable and this can be corrosive, even terminal.

As witnessed when David Cameron defeated then ‘front-runner’ David Davis. Post-Boris, this quickly became Theresa May’s 'burden'. She now needs to maintain her ascendancy. Her main challenger, Brexiteer Leadsom, needs a strong finish among Tory MPs to make her candidature credible in the second phase (when the party membership votes). 

At this point both candidates will play to this constituency, but must not do so at the expense of being able to build a much broader coalition of voters at the next general election.

Malcolm Gooderham is a founder of Montfort Communications

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