Speaking at an event at Weber Shandwick chaired by Joey Jones, Torsten Bell from the Resolution Foundation, Daisy Powell-Chandler from Populus and Ryan Shorthouse from Bright Blue discussed policy implications of the election campaign, and what challenges will confront the next government.
Conservative Party overconfidence?
There was no doubt the Conservative manifesto signalled a supremely confident Prime Minister. Our panellists all agreed how strongly the influence of Theresa May’s chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, could be felt throughout the document. Resolution’s Torsten Bell argued that this was a “gung ho” manifesto with strong ideological foundations, but Bright Blue’s Ryan Shorthouse raised concerns about the “sellability” of the manifesto on doorsteps by local campaigners.
The lady is for turning
There was much discussion about the degree of damage caused by the manifesto’s social care policy, and the rapid U-turn that followed. Populus’s Daisy Powell-Chandler asserted that, while these moments have significance for political commentators, such campaign moments rarely cause any great change to voting intention. All panellists agreed that the centralised operation of Theresa May’s team made policy formulation more challenging, through a refusal to seek or accept opinions and evidence that challenges their own strong views. There was agreement that the Conservative Party’s subsequent U-turn could cause problems after the election, now MPs and opposition have seen how quickly the Prime Minister’s team respond to minor pressure.
Strength and stability
Despite the adverse reaction to the social care policy, the Government remains in a strong position. Daisy Powell-Chandler brought research done by Populus showing voters association of terms like ‘competent’, ‘strong’ and ‘determined’ with Theresa May. In comparison, Jeremy Corbyn is more closely associated with being ‘out of his depth’ and ‘weak’, although ‘principled’. The Conservative’s relentless repetition of their catch phrase, ‘strong and stable’, is proving successful, with almost two thirds of voters having heard it. Labour’s lack of message discipline, even around such a classic message as ‘for the many not the few’, is struggling to reach even half that.
Show me the money
A surprising aspect of the manifestos, according to Ryan Shorthouse, was the Conservative’s lack of focus on manifesto costings. Torsten Bell argued that, while it may not have a significant impact on the election campaign, it will nonetheless undermine the Prime Minister and her team’s credibility in Westminster. Both Torsten Bell and Ryan Shorthouse agreed that Theresa May’s reputation for rigour and effectiveness has been dented, with potential implications for policy implementation in government.
The panel noted that the Prime Minister has a delegation problem. Unlike David Cameron’s government, which saw independent-minded cabinet ministers like Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith leading their own policy projects, Theresa May’s team are largely conduits for her own policy agenda, and that of her close advisers. The panellists were united in their scepticism of how long such an arrangement could last in a government made up of ambitious Ministers and MPs.
What will the new Parliament look like?
Daisy Powell-Chandler brought up the rise of the ‘Maybots’ – a large influx of loyal, new Conservative MPs fully aware they owe their election to the Prime Minister. Although Torsten Bell suggested that Jeremy Corbyn might be a bigger factor in Conservative candidates’ success than Theresa May’s personal appeal and grassroots Tories knew that.
The return of two-party politics
Our panellists agreed that this election appears to demonstrate the end of a trend towards multi-party democracy in the UK, with an abrupt return to two party politics in England and most of Wales. According to Populus, cumulative support for the two main parties is now at its highest since 1979. Torsten Bell was clear that this is going to be a watershed moment for the Labour party, although what the fallout will be is far from clear. The concluding remark of our discussion fell to Daisy Powell-Chandler. In an election campaign where the Conservatives are promising energy price caps, Labour are pledging to nationalise the railways and the Lib Dem leader is uncomfortable with sexual equality, “who is defending capitalism and liberalism?”. This is a strange new world.