General Election Panel: Ice ice baby

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.

Among the key campaign events of the past seven days, Channel Four News hosted a one-off climate-change debate between the leaders of the main parties.

Most fielded their leaders to speak, but Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage refused to take part.

Johnson's deputy, Michael Gove, arrived to speak in his place, accompanied by his own film crew (and – for some reason – Johnson's father, Stanley), but was not allowed to take part.

The result was that Channel Four placed a melting ice sculpture on the podiums in place of the two leaders who did not turn up.

This prompted veiled threats by the Conservatives to 'review' the broadcaster's licence when it comes up for renewal as well as a complaint to Ofcom, which was rejected by the regulator on Tuesday.

During the debate, Green Party leader Sian Berry was clearly the most convincing, but this has not translated into popular support for her party, with polling remaining flat during the campaign.

The Conservatives' refusal, so far, to agree a date for Johnson to be interviewed on the BBC by the fearsome Andrew Neil – who has so far savaged most of the other party leaders – has added to the perception that the party and its leader are averse to scrutiny, ahead of polling day next week.

The terrorist attack on London Bridge on Friday afternoon also swiftly became a political issue in the general election campaign, when the Conservatives and Labour blamed teach other for the fact that the perpetrator had been allowed back on the streets following an earlier conviction for terrorist offences.

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

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

Sir Craig Oliver

Should Boris Johnson subject himself to an interview with Andrew Neil? To read some journalists you would think there was no more important question in this general election. Many commentators have a tendency to get very puffed-up about this issue, going as far as to suggest our very democracy is at stake. Regardless of the rights and wrongs, I hate to break it to them: these set-pieces aren't going to change many people's votes, whether they happen or not.

Many election interviews or debates get built up as a great gladiatorial contest, only to prove a massive anticlimax. Boris Johnson went on Andrew Marr's programme and it bordered on the unintelligible. Marr was so determined to stop Boris getting away with anything that he let him get away with everything. The two men repeated themselves endlessly and talked over each other. That suited Johnson more than it suited Marr.

The truth is the parties now have the cheat codes for dealing with broadcasters. For years they have understood that in many circumstances they have the power to say no – and there isn't a thing the broadcasters can do about it.  When they try – like replacing Boris and Farage with a melting ice sculpture – they get drawn into a row that leaves them looking just as petty. When they say yes, they can bog them down – run down the clock. It isn't great but it's unlikely to change, and broadcast journalists need go back to the drawing board and have a deep think after this election.

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

Zoe Thorogood

There is always a microphone on somewhere. That is the sage advice regularly dispensed by advisors across Whitehall but, as Gordon Brown and David Cameron know, even the most experienced politicians can be caught off-guard. Fortunately for Mr Trudeau and the other world leaders assembled at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday, the recording wasn't too explosive – but it is embarrassing, and Boris’ presence in the group will cause irritation to his team after what has been a surprisingly successful visit.

Special advisors are trained to always expect the unexpected – but not usually in a good way – so the relative restraint of Trump will have heartened the Conservative camp, which was understandably nervous about his arrival in the UK. The last thing the campaign will have wanted was a strong endorsement from the US President and, luckily enough, they didn't get it. Trump's "I will work with any prime minister" was helpfully vague, and his failure to declare himself a fan of team Boris was even better.

Rather skilfully, and I suspect accidentally, the President also managed to help the Tories by wiping away Labour's NHS attack arguments in one fell swoop, stating that he wouldn't touch the NHS if it were "offered on a silver platter".  Sighs of relief all round – except at Labour HQ, where spinners will be fuming that Trump appears to have put his best foot forward. Corbyn was undoubtedly banking on exploiting the predictable gaffs, but when they failed to come Labour were left, yet again, with nothing much to say.

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

Nick Williams

Seven days to go until the election and CCHQ's collective nerves will have severely frayed after some polls showed a slight narrowing of the Conservative lead as some Lib Dem support moves to Labour. These are times in election campaigns when the most senior campaign advisers need to hold their nerve.

This comes at a time when, once again, tragically terrorism has come to the election with the London Bridge attack. When this happened in the last election campaign, Theresa May failed to control the narrative and the Conservatives were exposed on law and order issues. Boris Johnson had learned those lessons and went on the offensive immediately, blaming Labour and demanding a review of early release. A recent poll showed that more than 80 per cent of voters supported the PM's position.

His next encounter with security came with the visit of Donald Trump to commemorate 70 years of NATO.  The combination of Trump and a week to go to the election was Christmas come early for Labour's campaign strategists. Going on previous experience, it was guaranteed he would walk into the media traps.

There must have been extensive negotiation and persuasion between Tory high command and the White House to get the President's agreement to be restrained. Whatever the backstory, the strategy has been a huge success and Conservative HQ will be celebrating with a job well done. Seven days to go, one last TV debate and a huge amount of Tory social-media spending to come – we are almost there.

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

Laura Sainsbury

What we choose not to keep in any given campaign is often as important and significant as what we choose to keep in. We were reminded of that this week when the Conservative party appeared to renege on its commitment for Boris Johnson to be interviewed by Andrew Neil. We were reminded of that when he declined to take part in Channel 4's election debate on the environment. We've also been reminded of that in the absence of some of those characters who've become damaging to the party brand and image. Where is Jacob Rees-Mogg?

Throughout this campaign the Conservatives have been ruthless in their commitment on messaging and on keeping Johnson away from situations where he might become exposed. Good campaigning is as much about managing the negatives as promoting the positives, and so what might be dodgy political practice – appearing to avoid scrutiny – is at the same time good communications management. Would you put your CEO in front of Andrew Neil? Unlikely.

Compared to an intentionally bland campaign from the Conservatives, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and the Labour Party have practically been running around in fluorescent paint. No concerns about being visible there, although the polls aren't yet telling the story they need them to. Averaging eight to 10 points behind the Tories, Labour now has nothing to lose. There is no question that its message is consistent. Now, the party's only chance of preventing a Conservative majority is to hammer home their differences on every conceivable issue – and hope Tory discipline collapses in the final weeks of the campaign.



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