General Election Panel: Tories energised as Brexit Party blinks first

Each week, our General Election Panel of political communications and public affairs experts from across the spectrum, will pass judgement on the highlights and missteps of the campaigns as the UK marches toward polling day.

Over the past seven days the Labour Party has been on the back foot over leadership and under fire from its political opponents over its spending plans, but the real difficulty was the announcement from Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage that he would not contest Conservative-held seats next month.

News of the departure of Labour's former deputy leader, Tom Watson, was rapidly followed by an interview with former Labour MP Ian Austin, who criticised Jeremy Corbyn and urged the electorate to vote for the Conservatives instead.

Meanwhile, NHS chiefs took to the airwaves to warn all political parties against 'weaponising' the health service during the campaigns, whether by making spending promises or by over-dramatising its difficulties.

At the start of the week, Conservative politicians were at pains to repackage Labour spending plans under the banner of "the cost of Corbyn", while steadfastly refusing to admit the cost of their own plans to interviewers.

Bombshell news on Monday lunchtime, that Farage would not field a full list of candidates and would only target Labour and Lib Dem seats, will have given the Conservatives a morale boost and its rivals wondering whether they, too, should form an electoral pact.

But events, as always, intervene in the best-laid political plans. Flooding in areas including Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire – in which one person died, hundreds more have been left homeless and many businesses have been affected – is now firmly an election issue.

After Boris Johnson was heckled on Wednesday during a visit to the region, could the issue come to engulf his plans to win target seats in Labour heartlands?

Now, our expert panellists discuss the events of the past seven days:

Laura Sainsbury, chair of Women in Public Affairs and board member of Labour in the City

Laura Sainsbury

From the trenches of the social-media campaign, where the fight to go viral continues, some interesting statistics: figures from The Guardian show that the Tories have been outspending all other parties on social-media advertising – video in particular – but it's Labour's videos that are being seen by more eyeballs, as well as being shared more. Hoping to aid this are Momentum volunteers, tasked by the group to identify any and all potentially useful footage from the news that can be cut into smaller clips and shared and shared again.

Of course, the real impact can only be judged by just who those eyeballs belong to. Any successful campaign with real impact needs to cut through to those not already on board, rather than those just sharing content that they already agree with. The party brand needs to attract new supporters, and not just speak to those already engaged.

On the topic of brand, it's been interesting to watch the reaction to the announcement of the Tory-Brexit Party 'Leave Alliance', and discussion over just who has tainted their brand more. The Left is using the alliance to highlight this as just another sign that the Tories are once again "the nasty party". By trying to turn centre-ground voters off, they hope to chip away at potential voters. But does this matter? The centre ground of politics moves with the times, as does views of what is "nasty". How will this play out at the polls? Only time will tell.

Sir Craig Oliver, principal at Teneo and former director of comms to David Cameron

Sir Craig Oliver

Forget bankrupting the economy. Forget who'll spend most on the NHS. Forget a second referendum. The most significant campaign in the general election so far has been aimed at just one man: Nigel Farage. The full force of the Conservative election team and the might of the right-wing press has been focused on the Brexit Party leader. They wanted to persuade him to call off the dogs and give Boris Johnson a free run with Leave voters.

Things weren’t looking good early last week when Farage appeared on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. The interview revealed that there had been a titanic battle between his desire to deliver Brexit and his ego – and his ego had won by a knockout. But the pressure built on broadcast, newspapers and online – and Farage switched, coming close to throwing in the towel. He agreed his party would not stand in the 317 seats won by the Conservatives in 2017.

Many rightly point out that the Brexit Party is still standing in the key Labour marginals Boris needs to win if he's to get a majority. But in politics you are either going forward or you are going backwards. Farage is effectively in retreat – and the argument that if you want Brexit, you need to vote Conservative is gaining real traction.

That's a major win for Johnson and pollsters now predict his chances of winning a majority have risen to 60 per cent. Don’t get me wrong, volatility is still the key watchword of this election. But the Conservative campaign worked best this week.

Zoe Thorogood, senior director at APCO Worldwide and former director of external relations at Conservative Campaign Headquarters

Zoe Thorogood

No one watching the news of the past few days can fail to be moved by the plight of our latest flood victims. This provided the tragic backdrop for a week where the political battle for the hearts and minds of voters well and truly commenced.

The messages from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives were similar at their core: we have the deepest pockets, we can fix this and the others can't or won't. From building better flood defences to promising huge NHS cash injections, political strategists saw an opportunity to connect with a disgruntled electorate and capitalise on the argument that voting for more public spending will make a positive difference to their lives.

Back in Westminster, the decision by Nigel Farage not to run Brexit Party candidates in 317 seats has undoubtedly taken the pressure off certain Conservative campaign teams, but opposition parties were quick to stoke conspiracy theories and, in communications terms, it may do more to alienate those floating voters who see it as a Brexit stitch-up.

The car-crash interview award of the week goes to Emily Thornbury. The decision to put her on a Monday-morning broadcast round without a clear position [on nuclear weapons] showed not only poor judgement by Labour’s press team but, more seriously, a complete lack of policy discipline. For the party to stand a chance of getting its message across it must be prepared to provide answers on difficult issues, no matter how unpopular; but once again it has fallen a long way short.

Nick Williams, managing director of issues and public affairs at BCW and former adviser to Labour under Tony Blair

Nick Williams

The polls look good for the Conservatives, Nigel Farage has stood down more than half his candidates and Labour is coming under fire – again – over antisemitism and nuclear weapons. So is Boris Johnson's campaign strategy working, and is he a dead cert for a majority? Far from it.

Farage's move only goes so far and the real benefit to the Tories would be if he pulled out of contesting the 50 Conservative-target Labour seats. That would be a real game-changer but one which he has now ruled out. Labour is currently at a similar poll level as in the 2017 Election with one month to go.

All campaigns are seeking to get away from the Westminster bubble and engage peoples' real interests. This has led to a fiscal freefall, with billions being offered up by all the parties to woo the electorate. In a win for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour's strategy, Brexit has not so far been the major issue the Tories want it to be.

Next week's first TV leaders' debate looms large. It is a major challenge for Boris Johnson – and he has everything to lose. The problems for him are two-fold. The Labour leader has the potential – if he gets his lines right – to pitch himself as the voice of reason on Brexit; the one man who can stop the Tories from steering Britain toward a Hard Brexit. And then there's Boris Johnson's infamous inability to grasp the detail. People will feel they know him, like him, even trust him – but they will want to see that he can be serious over a sustained period of time.



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