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In his first major speech of this election campaign, Boris Johnson was partying like it was 2015 all over again. Back then, David Cameron’s relentless focus on “the chaos of Ed Miliband”, plus blood-curdling warnings about him being in the pocket of the SNP, was enough to squeak him a working Commons majority.
Today, Johnson put beyond doubt that his big weapon in 2019 would be exactly the same tactic against Jeremy Corbyn. “Do you want to wake up on Friday 13th December and find a nightmare on Downing Street, a Corbyn-Sturgeon technicolour coalition of chaos?” he asked the audience of car workers in a factory in Rugby.
Four years on from 2015, there are several problems for the Conservatives with this attack strategy. First, the voters may be bored of such hare-em-scare-em tactics, not least after the seemingly endless instability of life under Cameron, May and Johnson.
Second, the party dynamics that operated at the last election but one have changed. Back then, the Lib Dems were still suffering from the taint of coalition and its austerity. And it’s worth remembering (though often forgotten) that many Lib Dem supporters in the south actually switched to the Tories because they were so spooked by the SNP threat. Cameron’s triumph stemmed almost solely from turning yellow seats blue.
Since then, the small matter of Brexit has obviously radicalised Lib Dem voters like never before. It’s possible that the spectre of Scottish influence in the shape of sensible Nicola Sturgeon, rather than scary Alex Salmond, has also seriously diminished (not least as Sturgeon is now such a pro-Remain figure).
There’s also the greater threat posed by a certain Nigel Farage. The Brexit party leader’s pride has already been wounded this week by the Tories simply banking his unilateral offer to stand down candidates in Conservative seats. Today, Farage flirted with the idea of actually voting Tory if Johnson could turn his hardline Brexit pledges into manifesto promises. But he swiftly U-turned (again) saying that was not possible “given the way the Conservative party have behaved this week”.
The PM tried to be emollient but refused to chuck Farage the redder meat he wanted. “I’m not backing down from Remainer seats,” Farage declared. That puts very much back on the agenda the threat of Tories facing Brexit opponents in Lab-Con marginals. And even in Tory-held seats, Farage said “what I’m seeing is a lot of Brexit Party supporters thinking of not voting at all”.
If he’s right, that’s fewer votes for the Tories in seats targeted by the Lib Dems.
But more than anything, the reason the ‘chaos’ attack on Corbyn may fail is because voters in the flooded north believe that life has been pretty damned chaotic in the past week. Today, Johnson finally collided with the great British public and it felt like a car crash. “It’s took you over five days,” said one woman. “You should have been there Saturday morning having a meeting... and I’m sorry your announcements yesterday were a pittance.” It was the reaction every politician fears: too little, too late.
Add that footage of him lamely deploying a mop in a hairdressers, as well as him looking like he was treating the whole floods as a PR opportunity, and there’s a big question mark again over whether Johnson’s premiership style feels like a foreign language in the North. Asking hard-pressed volunteers what more he can do missed the point: they wanted him to have already gripped the situation with all the power and cash of the state, not leave it to them.
The other problem is that Johnson is not just trying to repeat the 2015 election. He’s throwing in a medley of 2017’s greatest hits thrown in for good measure. That’s why he’s trying the Theresa May attack lines that Corbyn is a threat to national security. Today he said the Labour leader’s remarks about arresting rather than killing an Islamic State terrorist were “naive to the point of being dangerous”. Those lines didn’t work two years ago, so will they now?
Of course, Johnson is a better direct salesman than May. He is not repeating her mistake of ignoring the economy and he has an optimistic, forward-looking agenda that includes things like a huge expansion of British science and R&D and planting millions of trees. He also has a gift for a one-liner and many in his team think he can get those Labour switchers he needs through sheer force of personality.
Today, he suggested his Brexit deal was like a Pot Noodle (“ready to go, just add water, stir in the pot”). That hugely popular British staple once got into trouble with a banned ad campaign that declared that eating it “felt so wrong and yet it felt so right”. And perhaps the only way Johnson can win this election is if Labour voters close their eyes and think of England. Whether it’s a guilty pleasure or guilty pain is still uncertain.
The difficulty is that just like May, Johnson seems to be avoiding meeting the voters on this campaign and so when he does meet them, they show they won’t be taken for granted. Like May, he’s in danger of looking like he’s avoiding scrutiny too (today he allowed his first proper press conference in the fortnight since the December 12 election was triggered).
Northern voters have given the PM a piece of their mind several times in recent months. The theory of those ‘chaos’ attack lines may look good on a powerpoint, but the practice can be very different - especially if you’re the one in power. And that’s the biggest lesson of today. Johnson wants to run on the future, but a sitting PM can’t escape the past. Or the present.
Quote Of The Day
“You’ve not helped us up to [now], I don’t know what you’re here today for.”
A resident in flooded Stainforth gives Boris Johnson a piece of their mind
Wednesday’s Election Cheat Sheet
Nigel Farage hinted that he could vote Tory in the general election if Boris Johnson put in his manifesto a pledge not to extend the UK’s Brexit transition beyond 2020 and committed to a Canada-style free trade deal. Hours later he said “given the way the Conservative party have behaved this week - I could not vote for them”.
Former cabinet minister David Gauke announced he would stand as an independent in his former safe Tory seat in Hertfordshire, came out for a second referendum and urged voters elsewhere to back the Lib Dems. Vote Tory “would be disastrous for the prosperity of this country”, he said. The Lib Dems still decided to put a candidate up against him.
John McDonnell said Labour’s 32-hour week policy would “apply to everybody”, including NHS staff. Earlier, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said Tory claims the NHS would switch to a four-day week straight away were “nonsense”. Ashworth later said the policy would not be mandatory and only be possible “after we’ve had a 10 year process of looking at it”.
Jeremy Corbyn started the day saying there would be “no [Scottish independence] referendum in the first term of a Labour government”. But he later reverted to his previous formulation that he would not consider one “in the early years” of his government “because our priorities will be elsewhere”. The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon has made a new poll a condition of supporting a Corbyn minority administration.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey told the Guardian that Labour had to win over the party’s traditional working-class supporters with by promising to end free movement of workers - migrant Labour from Europe - after Brexit.
An anti-abortion party, the Christian People’s Alliance, will centre its entire general election campaign on a bid to oust pregnant Labour candidate Stella Creasy.
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