Brandon Lewis: “The Tories can’t shy away because some people want to stop others having their say on politics”
Brandon Lewis wants to get the Conservatives into a ‘battle-ready’ state in time for the next election. Can the new party chairman, who first campaigned for the Tories at age 11, turn things around? He talks to Kevin Schofield
On the wall of Brandon Lewis’s small office at Conservative Campaign Headquarters is a map of London. It shows the capital’s 32 boroughs, with each colour-coded to represent which party has control of the local council. Only nine are Tory blue, while no fewer than 20 are Labour red.
It provides a daily reminder for the Conservatives’ relatively new chairman of the huge challenge facing his party in the local elections in less than three months’ time.
Ask any Tory MP and they will tell you that the party is probably heading for a very bad night on May 3rd, with some even speculating that the Prime Minister’s own position could come under threat in the immediate aftermath.
In London, the councils to watch closely are the true-blue boroughs of Westminster and Wandsworth. If they fall to Labour, then the Conservatives – and Theresa May – are in serious trouble.
Lewis makes no attempt to hide the fact that these elections are “difficult” for his party. In fact, he uses that word no fewer than seven times to emphasise the point. “These are really difficult elections for us,” he says. “If you look at the electoral cycle, this is the point of the cycle that’s always difficult. The last time these were up in 2014, if you look at the numbers, Labour did very well. And obviously London is up and London is a very challenging dynamic for us. We’ve got work to do in London and elsewhere. These are difficult elections and I can’t shy away from that.
“But at the same time, we’ve got to take our case forward and put a strong campaign out there to make sure we do everything we can to give people good local governance with Conservatives and support for candidates around the country to win as many seats as we can.”
In an interview with The House magazine on the eve of Tory conference last year, Theresa May admitted that one of the reasons for the party’s disappointing performance in the snap election was that they had not been ready for her calling it. “There weren’t the links with the centre that there should have been. That’s one of the issues we need to look at,” the Prime Minister said.
Lewis, who only took over from the unlamented Patrick McLoughlin last month, insists that “things have moved on” since May uttered those words.
“I think we are in a much better place,” he says. “Great credit to my predecessor and the team here, we’ve now got a much stronger machine. We’ve got campaign managers out in the field, we’re seeing some really strong activity during the week and at weekend in terms of campaigning activity.
“We’ve started to see a real energy and enthusiasm, with volunteers around the country and we’re seeing the benefits of that. But there is still work to do.”
That includes improving the Conservatives’ social media game, which was knocked out the park by Labour’s efforts at the general election. No one who followed the Tories’ official Instagram account at last year’s party conference – when a picture of a glum Michael Fallon in a non-descript room glaring at the camera was deemed to be engaging content – could reach the conclusion that the party was seizing the zeitgeist.
Things have improved somewhat, with CCHQ finally giving the impression that they know their gifs from their memes. But that is only a small part of the online battle.
Lewis fears that the intimidation and abuse on social media which is now a seemingly inevitable part of political discourse is putting many off from campaigning for, and even publicly identifying with, his party. It is clear that he believes Jeremy Corbyn is failing in his duty to call out those on the left who attack their opponents online.
He says: “In the last few months, our content and what we’re putting out is very strong, but I always want to look at how we can do better and how we can do more to make sure our message is being spread by third parties. Labour did a very good job at the last election of getting organisations to retweet and spread the message.
“But if you look at what happens on social media, if somebody on the right or the centre puts out a message, the attack from the hard left is sometimes unbelievably abusive and vitriolic. For some people, if they suddenly get attacked by a huge number of hard left people they’ve never met, that can put them off.
“Having proper, robust debate is an integral part of our democracy. I’ve had straightforward debates with Diane Abbott and I’ve pointed out the fact she can’t add up. That’s a proper debate. Personal abuse and calling for physical abuse is completely unacceptable and we need to be able to differentiate between the two. What will happen otherwise is people from all political angles and views will start being put off from being involved.”
Every Conservative candidate must now sign a ‘respect pledge’ promising not to be abusive towards their political rivals. Labour have thus far turned down invitations to follow suit. Lewis believes he knows the reason why.
“I’m amazed that Labour are refusing to draft up their own equivalent,” he says. “I see some of the stuff perpetrated by some of the hard left and I can only assume it’s because they condone that kind of behaviour.
“Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t come out and condemn some of the things that have happened. We’ve still got the Shadow Chancellor endorsing physical abuse of a female Cabinet member and that’s unbelievable.
“If the leadership aren’t explicitly saying ‘this is unacceptable, we need to conduct ourselves in a proper way’, then it’s giving a very bad message to everyone else.
“I’d like to think they’ll see sense and want people to have a proper debate – not the abusive and uncalled-for attacks.”
Remarkably, despite the Conservatives’ ongoing travails over Brexit and the never-ending positioning by some in the race to succeed Theresa May as leader, the party is ahead of Labour in some polls. Lewis says that shows they must be doing something right.
He says: “What [the polls] do reflect, and what I’m seeing when I’ve been out and about on the streets talking to residents around the country, is people have a huge amount of respect for a Prime Minister who’s getting on with the job.
“Being in government means getting on with the job, not just dealing with leaving the European Union but also delivering a domestic agenda, and actually they can see that we are a party and a government that is getting on with that. Since the election, what they’ve seen with the opposition is either very little in some areas or they’re not quite sure what they stand for. People judge us by our actions and that focus is hopefully what people are responding to.”
Earlier this week, May unveiled plans to reform the way universities are funded. Among the suggested changes is the reduction in tuition fees for some courses and a cut in the interest rate on student loans.
The Prime Minister’s conversion to the cause of cheaper degrees in not unconnected to the fact that Labour’s manifesto pledge to scrap tuition fees entirely was a huge vote-winner, particularly with young people.
The debate over the size of the so-called ‘youthquake’ which almost propelled Jeremy Corbyn to Number 10 continues, but Lewis concedes that the Tories need to do more to connect with that key demographic.
He reveals that senior Conservatives will be going into universities with the aim of encouraging more undergraduates to back the party. And he points to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s recent altercation with hard-left demonstrators at a Bristol university as an example of why such outreach work is vital.
Lewis says: “We are certainly going to be going out there. After what happened with that situation with Jacob Rees-Mogg a couple of weeks ago, we can’t shy away because some people want to put people off having their say on politics.
“We’re going to go out there and have a wider programme of interaction with young people and through the universities as well. There will be a range of ministers, MPs, myself as chairman, engaging with Conservative-supporting groups in universities more, give them the support and showing them that we’re not going to be scared away by some people thinking they can put people off. We’ve got to have that freedom of speech.
“We’re getting more and more young people coming to us and wanting to get involved. They’re getting fed up with being told, because they’re under 30, they must be Corbynistas. They want to have their say because they do believe in having a free market. That’s really good and we want to make sure they have the support they need.”
As someone who first pushed a Conservative leaflet through a letter box at the age of 11, political campaigning is in Brandon Lewis’s blood.
“I find it very exciting,” he says “As chairman of the party I see my role as getting the party into a battle-ready condition for the general election in four and a half years’ time, and have good results in the elections between now and then.”
To do that, the Conservatives will have to take on Jeremy Corbyn’s army of more-than-willing volunteers. At the last count, Labour’s membership was approaching 600,000, with the Tories’ thought to be barely a tenth of that.
Lewis admits he still does not know precisely how many members his party has, but insists a figure will be produced “in the not too distant future”.
However, he dismisses suggestions that the Tories are destined to be outgunned on the doorstep. “A huge number of people are out there volunteering, helping Conservative candidates and councillors, who are not necessarily members but are supporters of the party,” he stresses.
“We are a membership-based organisation and one of the reasons I want to make sure we’ve got a proper understanding of our membership is that I want to grow it so we need to understand what it is and where it is. That’s a piece of work I want to drive forward this year.”
He is less forthcoming, however, when asked whether May will be her party’s leader when they next general election comes around.
“I’ve said before she’s’ absolutely the right person to take us forward,” he says. “If we’ve learned anything, it’s that we should stop predicting where we’re going to be in two years’ time.
“A couple of years from now I believe we’ll have a Prime Minister who will have delivered a good deal on Brexit, will have delivered housing, good education and continued job growth – that’s a phenomenally powerful platform on which to take our country forward. She’ll have my full support and I hope that’s what she’ll do.”
And what is his message to the Tory MPs openly speculating about the Prime Minister’s political shelf life?
“We’ve got a brilliant Prime Minister who the public respect, who is rated far higher than the opposition leader, who’s taking us forward. We’ve got some difficult things ahead in terms of getting the Brexit deal done and we should be focused on giving all the support to get that job done and deliver for the UK. If we do that, I think as a party we can be in a good place.”