THE BLOG

A View From The Campaign Trail With Team May In The Election's Last 48 Hours

07/06/2017 10:29
WPA Pool via Getty Images

I'm on the train up to Stoke-on-Trent to join Team May in the second from last day of this election campaign.

By the time I land for Theresa May's lunchtime rally at a local rugby club she'll have visited a bakery in Lancashire and a farm in North Wales. And by the time millions of people settle down to watch TV tonight, she'll be at her fifth event of the day, in Slough. The May Battle bus will have clocked up over 300 miles, traversing five counties in 12 hours.

The intensity of campaigning is often directly correlated to the distance a leader - and his or her advisors - feel they need to travel to win over the electorate.

Remember Nick Clegg's Lands End to John O'Groats tour in 2015. Didn't end that well for the Lib Dems did it? They lost 49 seats in that election. And how about David Cameron? He knew the race was tight in 2010 when he embarked on a 36-hour round-the-clock tour of Britain in a desperate bid to win more votes. He was right be anxious. That election gave us the first hung parliament in three decades.

Theresa May hasn't upped the campaigning to that level of intensity, but there has been a seismic shift in her election campaign over the course of the past three weeks, the social care screw-up and u-turn rattling the prime minister and her team.

On the ground, Team May started off with an iron grip. Well ahead in the polls, her adversary apparently useless, this was meant to be a presidential procession back into No 10 for the Tory leader.

Her cabinet was kept in the bunker - she held just one joint event with her chancellor in the middle of May (of never to be repeated) - and the word 'Conservatives' was dropped from her posters.

The message was simple and the media tightly controlled. May's pitch was only she could offer the "strong and stable" leadership required to deliver Brexit. And as for us? We trailed after her, calling her fixers to request that our name be put on her question list. She started this campaign taking four/five questions from pre-selected journalists - at one event no-one else even bothered to raise their hand because they knew they wouldn't be called.

But in Wrexham - a couple of weeks ago - that all unwound. Under heavy fire over her social care policy, she rewrote a central piece of her manifesto - softening the proposals to make the elderly pay more for care - while insisting "nothing had changed". Michael Crick of Channel 4 called her "weak and wobbly" after that u-turn as the strain of running a one-woman Presidential race began to take its toll. It may not have been a mortal wound, but it has left its mark on her campaign.

Since the social care u-turn and a spike in the polls for Corbyn, the May campaign has felt far less assured and the prime minister has too. Last week, her co-chief of staff Fiona Hill suddenly started appearing at rallies and speeches with her. A clue perhaps that the smooth running of this campaign was hitting bumps in the road.

Since then Theresa May's campaign has been more of a slog to the finish line than a regal march back to No 10.

It made the whole thing far more interesting. The messaging has changed from Theresa May and her team, to the Conservative party once more. Brexit and the economy is back on the placards - a hint perhaps that her personal brand has become more of a liability than an asset as the campaign progressed.

Our leashes have been loosened too; we're getting to ask lots of questions at Theresa May stump speeches. She is a master at not answering them, and that can be frustrating, but at least we get a change to challenge her and ask tough questions.

But as I follow her up and down the UK, watching her bat off questions with rather evasive answers, I wonder how she must be feeling? Emily Morgan of ITV asked her in South Stoke: are you feeling nervous? The "Maybot" (as the sketch writers call her) insisted she was enjoying the campaign.

It has been quite a journey for us, but what a journey for her too. She called this election, on April 19, from a seemingly unassailable position. She's ending it with Corbyn in striking distance, on the defensive over her record as Home Secretary in the wake of two terror attacks and in a fight for her political life.

The uncomfortable truth is that the more the public have seen of their prime minister, the less they seem to like her, or believe what she says. Of course, she might storm home on Thursday night with a bigger majority - all those trips to Brexit-supporting seats may well pay off. But I can't believe she won't bear some scars from this snap election - with the public, and with her party too.

Beth Rigby is senior political correspondent for Sky News

Follow the election results on VOTE 2017 from 9pm Thursday 8th June on Sky News

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