Rishi Sunak took his Cabinet on a team away day yesterday. We’ve all been on these before. Usually hosted in the boardroom of some hotel – think pastries and tea, lots of PowerPoints, and lots of people saying things like “we should think outside the box” and “let’s take a step back for a minute”. The Government version was slightly different, in that it was hosted in the Prime Minister’s grand countryside mansion, Chequers. But the essence of it was basically the same as what we have all experienced. And the main question written on the flipchart will have been ‘how do we win the next General Election?’
No campaign is complete without a shady “election guru”, lurking in the background, and as such, Isaac Levido was apparently present at the away day. A key member of the winning 2019 team, Levido was thrown out of the fold by Liz Truss before being thrown back into it by Rishi Sunak. Viewed as a bit of a Lynton Crosby protégé, Levido is well liked in Tory circles and takes a lot of the credit for the 2019 win, especially now Dom Cummings has turned into a full time anti-Tory blogger, so they probably want to forget about his role in it all.
Levido is a no nonsense campaigner, and allegedly told the Cabinet they have a narrow path to victory, and need message discipline and relentless focus in order to achieve it. This sounds reminiscent of 2019, which was based on a simple but effective strategy. In a sentence the pitch then was, ‘We will get Brexit done, deliver on the will of the people, and then get investing in parts of Britain left behind.’ Bish bash bosh, easy stuff, delivered with a bit of Boris Johnson swagger and aided and abetted by Jeremy Corbyn and the chaotic, fractured Labour Party.
Back then the focus was all on the ‘red wall’, a group of voters which has become increasingly politically fetishized. “Imagine 45 year old Colin from Barnsley,” you can imagine them saying. “Colin doesn’t care about all this babble from SW1 think tanks and the media, he wants a bit of straight talking, he wants Brexit, law and order, and investment in his area. Let’s think more about Colin and less about Tessa from Harringay, eating her avocado-on-sourdough.” Much as it became painfully stereotyped, it did work.
But this time things are very, very different. There is no specific group of people they can flip from red to blue. All the existing electoral coalitions are up in the air. There is the ‘red wall’ to worry about, but also the ‘blue wall’ in the home counties, and also Londoners, and also generation rent, and also pensioners, who were so badly hit by Covid and now the NHS crisis. There comes a point when, if you are faced by so many different groups you need to turn around, the best way to do it is with a uniform opinion swing, not by being targeted. The elevator pitch is also much more complex than in 2019, when the Tories were almost able to fight on a single issue. And importantly, they were able to say ‘get Brexit done’ without facing questions about why they hadn’t already got it done. It was parliamentary paralysis that was stopping them, and so despite being the incumbents, they were not the sole owners of the damage. But now, not only do the Tories have more issues to lead with, but they have much more work to do to explain why those issues exist in the first place.
Try to think of the ‘get Brexit done’ for 2024. “Let’s get the economy moving, (it’s failing because of Russia not us), and invest in the NHS (Covid was a bummer, not our fault), and stop all these strikes (it is that Mick grinch guy, nothing to do with Government.” There is just too much to explain.
The key to the Government winning the next election will not be good issue framing, slogans, and targeting certain parts of the population. Of course good communications helps, but they will only win it this time if they make tangible change to public fortunes in time. Tackling inflation, getting NHS waiting times down, coming to a deal on strikes, these are the very difficult challenges that need to be overcome for the Tories. While their aura is always alluring, slick campaign chiefs are less important this time.