Theresa May’s speech outside 10 Downing St on Wednesday has put the Tories’ election strategy in stark relief. It’s an entirely negative campaign, proposing nothing but claiming the EU are ganging up on the UK and on herself in particular, and warning that Labour aren’t competent to govern or to deliver what they promise. Labour for their part are promising quite a lot. Their campaign has been a steady stream of policy announcements, by and large policies which are popular with the general public, but May’s line is that it doesn’t matter what Labour promise because they won’t be able to carry it through.
The Tories are relying on Project Fear yet again, and why wouldn’t they? It worked very well in the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 and the General Election the year after. Last year’s EU Referendum was the exception which proved the rule as both sides tried to enlist the fear factor and cancelled each other out. The Tories have a big poll lead and with that in their back pocket they seem to feel they don’t need to offer anything at all to the electorate, save pointing out that the other lot can’t be trusted. The promise to administer the thrashing the nation requested is about as inspirational as they get. You asked for it and by God you’re going to get it.
That Tory poll lead is based on people accepting that Theresa May is a safe pair of hands to run things. It proceeds from the unjustified veneer of self-proclaimed competence she assigned to herself in her unchallenged party leadership campaign and which has somehow lingered and become attached to her government and herself as Prime Minister. May’s time at No 10 has been anything but impressive, characterized by policy gaffes and forced u-turns in Parliament. Her dourness is supposed to be a positive for her as the nation searches for a rock to cling to, but it doesn’t seem that way during her wooden, stilted performances at the despatch box. And while I and many others would be delighted if she did give up her day job, she’d be badly advised if it was to pursue a career as a stand-up comic. Even though her parroting of soundbites in the early part of the election campaign has led to her being compared to the Daleks, they probably deliver a joke better than she does. She displays all the personal warmth of a pensioner’s boiler after the Winter Fuel Payments have gone, which is why her meet-the-people events are typically held in places like the middle of a forest 16 miles outside of Aberdeen.
Labour need to point all this out and more. May’s personal competence is on the verge of delivering her victory and it has so far gone largely unchallenged, which is why she must be made to look bad personally. Jeremy Corbyn’s New Politics has aimed to concentrate on issues and avoid personal attacks and it’s been an admirable and honourable experiment. It’s popular among his supporters but the general public don’t seem to care too much about his ethics while he’s smeared yet again by the Tories. It’s unfortunate but the New Politics and their prim sensibilities need to be ditched fast if Labour are to overturn the certainties the Tories are relying upon. Corbyn himself would be completely unsuitable to do it but he doesn’t have to. I don’t recall Tony Blair lowering himself to personally savage Michael Howard. There was no need, his attack dogs did it all for him behind the scenes. It means exposing May as untrustworthy and duplicitous. She has to be painted as self-serving, sacrificing the nation’s interests at the altar of her own. Her lust for power and refusal to be challenged must be shown to be a severe character flaw rather than a sign of strength. If pictures of her sneering at children can be used as evidence of some inner truth so be it. If people see her pick up a cone of chips and think the chips are more likely to be the ones objecting to the amount of vinegar in the other then things are going well. Labour can knock the Tories out of their comfort zone and force them to engage in a policy debate they haven’t prepared for if they fight the unfounded smears by batting them right on back. The emptiness of the Tory offer in comparison to Labour’s will become clear and only then will the contest really begin.