General Election Panel: Avoidable errors in the final week of campaigns, but will they affect the outcome?

As polling day dawns, our General Election Panel of political communications and public affairs experts, from across the spectrum, pass judgement on the highlights and missteps of the campaign.

General Election Panel: Avoidable errors in the final week of campaigns, but will they affect the outcome?

It was all going so well for the Conservatives; a solid 10-point lead (and more) throughout the six-week campaign and an opposition weakened by its ambiguous position on Brexit and accusations of antisemitism looked set to deliver the party a large victory.

That was until Monday. A picture, published online by the Yorkshire Evening Post on Sunday then picked up by The Mirror, showed a boy with suspected pneumonia who had been admitted to Leeds General Infirmary but was left waiting for hours, sleeping on coats on the floor, because of a shortage of beds. If one image could encapsulate an issue on which Labour is strong and the Conservatives are weak, this was surely it.

The situation would have been bad enough, but it would have subsumed within a single news cycle if handled properly. However, it escalated quickly when Boris Johnson was interviewed by an ITV reporter who tried to show him the picture and ask for a comment. Johnson's response was to pocket the reporter's phone, and he looked rattled as he tried to formulate a reply.

The effect was that Johnson came across as insensitive to the plight of the child in question and to the fate of the NHS in general. So much so that Health Secretary Matt Hancock was duly dispatched to the Leeds hospital to repair the reputational damage and present a more caring response.

Worse, spinners for the party briefed lobby hacks that a fight had occurred between Labour protesters and Hancock's Spad – claims which were quickly proved to be false. Meanwhile, a social-media campaign targeting right-wing journalists attempted to debunk the original story altogether, despite Leeds General Infirmary confirming that it was true. The effect was that the story survived into a second full news cycle.

And when Johnson took refuge in a walk-in fridge on Wednesday morning to avoid being interviewed by Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid on Good Morning Britain, it raised the notion, once again, of a would-be-leader who eschews scrutiny.

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
Laura Sainsbury

Campaigns are emotional. They are designed to engender feeling and provoke responses. Unfortunately, when I think about the 2019 election campaigns, one word keeps coming to mind: depressing.

Overall both major parties have had pretty good, gaffe-free campaigns, notwithstanding Monday's ridiculous phone incident and Wednesday’s hiding-in-a-fridge moment (both couldn't-make-it-up moments that would perhaps be considered too ridiculous even for The Thick of It). But it's been boring, tedious and repetitive.

From laughter at the TV debates to engagement on the doorstep, reception to everyone across the board has been a bit 'meh'. Voters aren't loving either Prime Ministerial option. For its part, Labour has tried to inspire with its vision of Corbynism, but what it is saying and doing is very similar to 2017, which didn’t work.

Meanwhile the Tories have played it very safe, hiding away what was previously thought to be their biggest asset – Boris Johnson. Remember earlier this year when he became leader? Messiah-like, it was believed that he could deliver a huge majority. A born campaigner, they said. A Tory that won London – he can win the country. Yet his minders have kept him away from marginals and as we go into election day, the polls suggest he will struggle to make good on that promise.

With a huge majority for the Conservatives looking unlikely we might reflect on what playing a narrow campaign can actually mean. It might translate into good politics, but it rarely inspires. Leaving us all a bit flat and yes, a bit depressed.

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

Craig Oliver
Craig Oliver

It all got a bit silly this week: a JCB crashing through a polystyrene brick 'Brexit' wall, Boris so desperate to avoid Piers and Susanna that he hid in a fridge while his aide swore live on air, the shadow Health Secretary recorded by a Tory "friend" saying Corbyn was a disaster, only to claim later – unconvincingly – it was just "banter".

I was in a BBC radio car three times in three days talking about these subjects, including: have more lies been told in this campaign, and was it acceptable for Johnson's team to lead Jeremy Vine and Andrew Neil on, only to pull interviews at the last minute?

On the latter point, I have mixed feelings. The media can sound entitled and appear navel-gazing; undermining its own point about scrutiny of politicians by talking about itself. That said, it's not a great look for Boris. I doubt it will change many votes this time, but he and his team are flirting with trouble.

When I ran Conservative comms in the 2015 election campaign, I constantly had to fight off people who thought the PM shouldn't do much media and certainly shouldn't do any debates. My point was, the PM was perfectly capable of defending himself – and risked looking what Margaret Thatcher called "frit".

I felt vindicated in 2017 when Theresa May ducked debates and key interviews. The fact she wouldn't expose herself helped crystallise a narrative that she wasn't a good fit for PM. Boris has done debates. But with a number of media slips and a refusal to face key interviewers, he risks creating a major problem. I suspect he will get away with it, and it won't drive him into hung parliament territory come the vote. But with politics as volatile as it is, I wouldn't bet my house on it.

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

Zoe Thorogood
Zoe Thorogood

I thought I'd be writing this comment to lament the general dullness of a lacklustre campaign and explain how highly unusual it was for all the major parties to have escaped the general election period without any catastrophic PR disasters.

Until Monday. That is when things started to unravel. Being on the road is tough. The teams are undoubtedly exhausted and emotionally stretched, but that doesn't excuse poor planning. With Boris so close to the finish line, it was more important than ever for extra care to be taken, and my former colleagues at CCHQ must be frustrated that silly mistakes have once again taken attention off the poorly performing opposition.

Ultimately the narrowing in the polls and media frenzy over a freezer could well end up motivating shy Tory voters to turn out, but longer term, these things really do matter. The Conservative Party brand is already fragile at best and the events of this week have done nothing but solidify the prejudices that exist towards it on the left.

Clever stunts such as the amusing Love Actually parody show a thoughtful attempt to attract attention from a hard-to-reach demographic, but ultimately they are not enough. It is going to take a lot more than Boris with a billboard to bring the Conservative brand in from the cold.

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

Nick Williams
Nick Williams

The last week of a general election campaign is a rollercoaster of emotions. The adrenaline that kept you going has totally run out and tempers are short. Ideally the last week of the Conservative campaign should have pushed its core message, 'Get Brexit Done', to its limit through a huge push on immigration, which they had identified as a major weakness for the Labour Party in focus groups.

So imagine the reaction of the Johnson campaign team when their boss completely bombed an ITV interview by refusing to look at a photograph of a child forced to sleep on the floor of a Leeds hospital.

The process for advisers in this situation is this. First: an internal blame game lasting two minutes in which they demand to know who on the ground allowed this to happen. Second: go on the offensive and brainstorm ideas to limit the damage, including questioning the source of the problem and creating a distraction or, even better, sending the Health Secretary to the hospital to show empathy – and show that his adviser was struck by a Labour supporter, despite lacking any evidence. Thank god for some friendly lobby journalists who will take anything. Third: assess the reaction overnight and push the nuclear button if needed.

In practice, this meant Tory advisers using one of their best weapons; a secret recording of the Shadow Health Secretary saying that he thought Labour would not win, and that Jeremy Corbyn was a liability and a security threat. The Tory advisers are now celebrating a complete turnaround. That is the world of the campaign life with the PM. Election campaigns are never dull on the inside.

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