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How the Tories took back control

6 min read

A revised deal, an intransigent parliament and a leader who believed in Brexit – the most crucial moments of the general election took place before the contest officially began, writes Mark Wallace 

When Boris Johnson sought to call the 2019 general election, he did so with an argument which sounded very familiar. Indeed, it was essentially the same case which Theresa May presented when announcing her snap election two and a half years earlier: that the Opposition parties and the powerful Establishment sought to prevent Brexit, and in so doing both defied the will of the people and bogged the country down in a way that was costly to our economy, our prestige and our institutions.

Some of those listening erroneously assumed that a Conservative Prime Minister mounting the same argument as his predecessor was also repeating her mistakes. That assumption neglected three essential differences between them.

It might seem extraordinary that it needs saying, but the first difference is that Boris Johnson is not Theresa May. They could hardly be more different in tone, tastes, character, philosophy, background or reputation. Most crucially, where May had been forged in office but was an unknown element on the campaign trail, Johnson was the opposite: an ebullient frontman who knows how to land headlines.

The second distinction was that the Conservative party was in a better state of campaign readiness. The lack of a majority, the endless parliamentary skirmishes over Brexit, the precarity of May’s leadership, and more recently the twin failures of the missed March deadline and the drubbing at the EU elections, made it obvious well before Johnson’s arrival in Downing Street that an election was inbound sometime soon, whether by the Tories’ choice or not. 

Preparations had therefore been made: data-gathering was underway, campaign managers were largely in place, some candidates had been selected in target seats, staff had been retained in CCHQ between elections. Painful memories of the traumatic experience of the 2017 campaign, when the Conservative party caught itself by surprise with a snap election even to the point of having laid off digital campaign staff shortly beforehand, helped to prevent a repeat of many of the same mistakes.

The third difference was that this time the Prime Minister’s reason for seeking an election was demonstrably, obviously, undeniably true. The fact that May already possessed a majority, and had never lost a Brexit vote, made it hard to fully bring to bear her (nonetheless accurate) warnings of the potential for the Commons to obstruct the process. There was no such doubt or flaw in Johnson’s case: Parliament had already forced two prime ministers to breach supposed Brexit deadlines; the Speaker and various backbenchers had changed the workings of the Constitution to try to prevent Brexit happening; the Prime Minister had even been dragged through the Supreme Court in the process of pitched warfare over the issue; and the Liberal Democrats and Labour were both now pushing various forms of Remain. There could be no denying that Brexit was in danger.

In that sense, the most crucial moments of the 2019 general election campaign took place before the electoral contest officially began. Securing the deal that everybody said was impossible. Parliamentary Remainers suddenly ditching their enthusiasm for ‘meaningful’ votes, and instead seeking to postpone the very prospect of a decision. Prorogation, and the political and legal battles around it. 

At the time, Johnson’s opponents thought that by disrupting his plans, defeating him through lawfare, and even forcing him past his own promised Brexit deadline, they were weakening his electoral appeal. 

Far from it; each of these events bolstered Johnson’s position as the only leader trying everything possible to get Brexit done. His opponents won battle after battle, and celebrated loudly, but cost themselves the war by doing so.

All those considerations bolstered Johnson’s starting message, which was artfully summed up in the most effective political slogan since Vote Leave’s ‘Take Back Control’. Like its referendum forebear, ‘Get Brexit Done’ was designed for maximum appeal and ease of communication, and heavily tested to prove the concept. It appealed to Leavers, frustrated and concerned that their vote was being ignored, but simultaneously to many others who simply wanted the country to be able to move on. 

Tory ministers, candidates and canvassers, who still shudder when they recall trying to sell ‘Strong and Stable’ long after it had become clear that May was anything but, found that members of the public were calling out ‘Get Brexit Done’ unprompted. In an election which was shaping up to be a race to unify and hold together Leavers or Remainers in support of each main party, Conservative strategists had hit on their winning message. They began the race with a strikingly high proportion of Leave voters already firmly decided that they would vote Tory.

The first big test came on Tuesday 19th November, in the first televised debate. Johnson held to his line, dragging every topic of discussion back to the need to break the deadlock. He did not set the nation’s screens alight, but the dogged repetition served him well in a debate that he mainly needed not to lose. 

More importantly, the head-to-head demonstrated that Labour’s Brexit policy was a huge vulnerability. Jeremy Corbyn was jeered by the audience for claiming his position was “clear”, and the Prime Minister punched the bruise by repeatedly asking which side of his own referendum, on his own deal, he would campaign for.

The after-action poll showed no change, which was fine for a Tory leader trying to maintain a head start but disastrous for a Labour leader trying to break through. The contrast over Brexit positions reminded Leavers of the importance of voting Conservative, and did little to inspire Remainers to have faith in Corbyn.

Thereafter, the Conservative challenge was to maintain message discipline, keep the debate themed around the idea that getting Brexit done was the sine qua non for all progress, and ensure that the tagline stayed fresh. 

A slimline, straightforward manifesto helped to calm Tory nerves – still jangling after the disaster of the ‘dementia tax’ – and presented a post-Brexit future which prioritised plausibility ahead of big-ticket giveaways. By making a virtue of relatively modest fiscal measures, they again managed to illuminate a Labour weakness by contrast. The uncounted hundreds of billions John McDonnell promised were available free of charge simply did not seem believable.

Much of the fortnight before polling day was spent fending off increasingly desperate efforts to repeat 2017 by making the election into a referendum on austerity. Labour hoped to make the London Bridge terrorist attack about police cuts, as had been done before. It saw in the photograph of Jack Williment-Barr sleeping on a hospital floor a chance to return to fear-mongering about the NHS, its very safest of spaces. Perhaps the dire performance of the Liberal Democrats would make enough votes available to close the gap and secure another hung Parliament.

The Conservatives, however, managed to hold their nerve and stick to their strategy. By Tuesday 10th December, Labour had narrowed the polling gap just enough to avoid complacency among would-be Tory voters, and Boris Johnson was at the wheel of a Union Flag-painted JCB, crashing through a wall labelled ‘GRIDLOCK’ with a digger bucket reading ‘GET BREXIT DONE’. It wasn’t a subtle metaphor, which is exactly why two days later he turned it into reality.

Mark Wallace is the executive editor of ConservativeHome

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