Election Reflections

Oh my, what a few days this has been.  Our expectations of British politics have, if not been turned upside down, then certainly they have surprised – and that includes the Prime Minister who expected to be handed a majority of at least 50 and possibly 100 or even 150.  The landscape has changed in ways we did not anticipate as well as those we did predict:

  • The collapse of UKIP was much anticipated, especially since the Brexit referendum left the right-wingers with no axe to grind, and the election of Paul Nuttall as leader confirmed their descent into buffoonery.
  • The extent of the SNP’s collapse was less anticipated, though they remain in charge of the Scottish Parliament.  Whether that weakens their case for a second indie referendum remains to be seen.
  • The ability of Corbyn to defy all the doubters and gain a hung parliament when critics saw him losing to a 100+ majority, even if Labour ended up the smaller party by 56 seats.  That they gained over 30, particularly in their own heartland and even in Tory strongholds like Kensington was simply not foreseen or foreseeable.
  • The awful election campaign run by May and her team, and her reluctance to be interrogated by media and public alike were simply not predictable beforehand – and leave her, in the words of ex-Chancellor George Osborne, as a “dead woman walking.”
  • The failure of Gina Miller‘s campaign to promote tactical voting produced curious results, namely the consolidation of votes for the duopoly of Conservative and Labour parties, the effect, many would say, of First Past The Post as the voting system (see the difference between FPTP and any system of proportional representation here.)

Of course, the final tally of seats mean the agony is prolonged and the next government could well fall as soon as it falls foul of a back bench rebellion.  May may find herself resigning or being challenged at any time, so she personally is walking a very fine line while pretending it’s business as usual and the election result was exactly what she expected. Hubris ultimately is its own punishment, though you will find plenty of analysis on how May blew her majority (try this one for size.)

You could easily argue that in practice everybody lost.  May was clearly the biggest loser, but Labour failed to take advance to become the biggest party – though it’s a perfectly foreseeable scenario that May is challenged for the Conservative leadership and her replacement calls an election.

Corbyn is clearly banking on momentum carrying him through to the premiership in the event a second election is held in October or next Spring – and the fact that he captured the youth vote is a massive factor in his favour.  More than that, Labour finished 792,228 votes behind May’s Conservatives, representing just 0.4% of the popular vote and considerably closer than the margin in seats – all of which leaves the Tory party feeling desperately insecure.

Perhaps the rise of Labour from the dead is the most remarkable story, since nobody had predicted anything other than a crushing Tory win as recently as 6 months ago.  But then, Corbyn worked hard on improving his credibility as May destroyed her own.  As the Tories blundered and Corbyn’s team focused on social media and winning the youth vote with huge success, and apparently building on success by winning even more popularity since the election result.

In fact, had the right to vote been extended to 16 and 17 year olds, chances are that Labour could have won an outright majority, so no surprise the Conservatives were against it on principle.  Never forget that all the key constitutional decisions are governed by the self-interest of parties, and we are much the worse for that.

Meanwhile, May has rightly been accused of poor judgement by the media and her own party, though it is her joint chiefs-of-staff whose heads rolled.  But there are plenty of other reasons to suspect May’s judgement, with a few listed below:

1. Timing

The timing of this election was very strange.  May came to power without a final vote, subject of a coronation by her party.  You might have thought it sensible to hold an election immediately given her honeymoon period and the fact that Labour were then engaged in a bloody internal wrangle, all the better to avoid Gordon Brown syndrome (he having inherited Labour leadership after the resignation of Tony Blair and choosing not to go to the country for a mandate.)  But no, she claimed the 2015 election was a mandate and promised there would not be an early election.

Then she did a total u-turn and called a snap election. Why?  Nervousness about the potential legal case against 13 of her MPs for false declaration of election expenses may have contributed, though in practice only one was charged (and he was re-elected in 2017!), though her claim was to gain a bigger mandate than the majority of 5 Cameron somewhat surprisingly won over Ed Miliband’s Labour in 2015.

No doubt about it, May totally misjudged the mood of the country and its view of her first year in charge, as indeed did the pollsters (again.)  Yet, had she obtained a parliamentary vote to run an election in June 2016 (another Cameron legacy, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act), she would certainly have won a large majority.

As it was, this election was neither one thing nor another, simply evidence of insecurity and gambling.  It coincided with Corbyn having had time to organise an effective campaign, though ultimately it was May’s inexperience that told (see here, repeated at the bottom of this blog.)

2. Brexit

May was a remain campaigner who came to the premiership with a bullish “Brexit means Brexit” stance, and a “hard Brexit” policy that alarmed even many who voted to leave the EU.  Leaving the single market in the hope of negotiating some other form of free access to trade with EU countries but without conceding free access to labour.  Bearing in mind May as Home Secretary failed to reduce net immigration, it seems her first priority is to do so, and thus appease the right of her party, above all else – though the public knows only too well how much the NHS in particular depends on doctors and nurses from the EU and elsewhere.

In view of Labour’s ambiguity over Brexit (Corbyn was a closet Brexiteer for many years and certainly gave out mixed messages in response to calls from his PLP for clear leadership and an olive branch to the 48% of remain voters), you’d think May would have gone for an easier policy option – bearing in mind that the referendum vote by a slim majority was to leave the EU, not when or how.

If then her aim was to gain a mandate for her “strong and stable leadership” of Brexit, the British public told her resoundingly they had little faith in her policy, and especially the unfeasible promises for a stronger economy that look little more than fiction at this stage, all the more since Trump will be giving no pretty gifts tied up with ribbon (the rumour is that he has postponed his scheduled state visit until the British people like him, which will be never!)  Furthermore, May’s administration is increasingly responsible for the contracting out to private companies of NHS Trusts, and nobody will forget the outright lies on the Brexit battlebus declaring that £350m a week allegedly saved from withdrawal of EU membership would go to the NHS – with her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson leading the chant!

Paradoxically, if she had recognised that Brexit was out of the ordinary political context she could have established the planning and negotiation under a National Unity committee.  She could then have included the likes of the very capable Sir Keir Starmer in her negotiating team and gained consensus support from all sides, sidelining the hardliners.  The effect would have been to take the sting out of Brexit, encourage experts to contribute and probably to win May the election with a clear majority.

Too late now, of course, and the impact will be felt when either a bad deal is negotiated, or no deal at all; then, the Commons and a good number of her own MPs may vote against, but certainly the British people will protest that we don’t have what was promised.  Oh, and for the record no deal means WTO terms, and that means paying tariffs for our trade.

3. “Dementia Tax”

I’ve already discussed this extensively in my analysis of manifesto pledges on health and social care (see here), but this issue demands discussion from a political standpoint.  This was allegedly a policy dreamed up by ex-Chiefs of Staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill but evidently not given a sanity test by anyone outside May’s coterie of yes-men and women.  The problem for her staff is that May does not listen.

The principle that people should have to sell their house to fund 24 hour nursing if they are afflicted by the lottery of long-term degenerative conditions, quite apart from social care to support the elderly living alone, is an anathema to all parties.  But the question remains of how you fund care for those who need it, regardless of their assets: through general taxation, which could be a hugely expensive proposition and only benefitting those who need the care.  Clearly May’s advisors thought they had come up with a winning wheeze: fund the care during a person’s lifetime but recoup all but £100k max through their estate, but with no upper limit to how much the individual would be charged in respect of their care.

The downside from a Tory standpoint is that this would hit hardest their own supporters who hoped to pass on assets through inheritance, and indeed had hoped the Tory party would abolish inheritance tax altogether.  Apparently this did not occur to the May team, which makes this a rare, if not unique example of honesty in a political manifesto.

The impact and widespread furore surrounding this fiasco caught the campaign entirely by surprise, to the extent that May went into an interview a couple of days later to suggest there would be an upper cap – and also mendaciously to suggest this was not a u-turn – but by then the damage was done.  You can only put this blunder down to naivity, but there can be little doubt it cost them many votes in constituencies they had every expectation of winning.

May could have devised a much blander and less controversial policy, but then complacency had set in and she never dreamed it possible that the polls talking of the closing gap with Labour might result in a hung parliament. When you take things for granted, you take your eye off the ball.

4. Media relations

No question about it, the most successful leaders have mastered the art of looking good in the media, of coming up with the soundbites that make the headlines.  It helps to be young, slim, hirsute, well-dressed and chock full of charisma, though the lack of conventional youth and beauty did not seem to impact Corbyn, who developed his own quiet and effective style of disarming harsh and provocative interrogation.

It is true that there is no requirement for any politician to conduct TV debates, but you ignore them at your peril, even where there is no presidential politics to be conducted.  In fact, even where the UK does not directly elect its senior office (other than members of their own constituency and their own party) it is an essential component of the top job that the holder is media-savvy and comes across well.

May is not comfortable under heavy grilling or awkward questions from the general public, and comes across as shifty, defensive and embattled, any more than she is comfortable with facing Corbyn at PMQs.  She does not answer questions but repeats her pre-learned mantra, avoids eye contact and looks like she is lying, even when she is not.   She is self-conscious and communicates negative messages through her body language.  Small wonder then that for the biggest media events she chose to send other people (Amber Rudd and Justine Greening for two different gigs.)

In fact, all her appearances were carefully staged to avoid contact with renegade members of the public who might embarrass her before the cameras.  All the clapping, cheering hordes were members of the Tory faithful and therefore only ever likely to feed her slow long-hops.

True, she did some of the TV tests, including a leaders Question Time, the regulation grilling by Jeremy Paxman and a few more, but by then a clear message had been sent to the public that the PM was avoiding contact and thought herself above the rolled-sleeves debating style of yore.

Had she been more combative and more personal (as opposed to the presidential style TV party political broadcasts at the start of the campaign), May may well have brazened out a victory and persuaded more floating voters to stick with Tory.  As it was, her strapline of “Strong and stable leadership” provided more than a hollow laugh, since she demonstrated nothing but weak and wobbly leadership through the entire campaign.

5. DUP Dilemmas

The big issue now for May, who is trying to continue as if nothing has happened, is what risks she can now not take, especially in relation to Brexit.  She made conciliatory noises to the 1922 Committee by apologising (“I got us into this mess and I will get us out of it” – which convinces nobody) and saying she was there to serve them as long as they wanted her (remember the 1922 Committee thinks it is the kingmaker, and woe betide any leader who goes against the backbenchers’ trade union), but there are many liberties she can not now take, and will certainly be seen as damaged goods to the MPs who lost their seats.

But she has a bigger issue in the potential deal with a vile party whose values are contrary to those of May’s own party, let alone the rest of the UK.  The two parties haven’t yet agreed a deal let alone published it.  I think it suddenly occurred to the DUP that they are in a strong bargaining position, which could end up as an expensive way to buy 10 votes for some legislation – quite apart from the risk of offending Ulster sensibilities.

May herself is clinging on to power, quite possibly by agreement with the notoriously illiberal DUP, though an alliance with an Ulster party causes many problems in itself, particularly their attitudes towards the LGBT community (they detest homosexuality and think it should be illegal, though there are more openly gay Tory MPs than there are DUP votes to buy), abortion (they think it should be banned and certainly not legalised in Ulster), creationism (they think it should be taught in schools) and climate control (their MPs include at least one who does not believe in global warming.)  Suggestions in the press are that the Orangemen also want their annual march to Drumcree church reinstating, which could easily flare into further sectarian violence – which the UK government needs like the proverbial hole in the head.

Oh, and money for Northern Ireland, lots of it in perpetuity.  And the sure knowledge that every government action will be scrutinised closely for anything contrary to the DUP protestant ethic and unionist doctrine.

No doubt about it, this deal, if it comes, will be at a heavy price and will cause many headaches down the line, even if it is on a vote-by-vote basis.  But there are other things for her to consider:  The DUP could not vote on issues impacting other than the UK as a whole or Northern Ireland, a legacy of Cameron’s push to ensure “English votes for English Acts” which May is probably cursing now.  It will almost certainly mean she can no longer push through controversial legislation like the Heathrow 3rd runway, which her own party (especially the newly re-elected Zac Goldsmith) would vote against.

But it’s also quite possible May might be hoist by her own Brexit petard:  will she walk away on the grounds that “no deal is better than a bad deal”?!  Either way, the Queen’s speech is postponed and can only be drafted on vellum when the PM has a clear view of what she will likely be able to get through parliament, so compromises are inevitable.

So now there are many eyes watching and waiting for something to happen. A few possible scenarios may emerge:

  • May could of course survive for a full term with DUP support, though not many think it likely.
  • She could try to coerce other parties to align with her Conservatives to shore up what will be a wafer-thin Tory/DUP majority, though it’s unlikely any would agree.
  • She might call a second election herself spontaneously, which is also thought unlikely after her last disastrous decision.
  • She may end up being defeated in the Commons and choose to fall on her sword rather than suffer the indignity of a further challenge.
  • There could also be a vote of no confidence in her by Tory MPs, which will leave the PM with nowhere to go.
  • A “stalking horse” challenger might be nominated from the back benchers, which will in turn give licence to front benchers to throw their names into the hat.
  • Any potential new Tory leader might fancy their chances at the polls too…
  • …but then we may all be wrong.  Watch this space!



dropHalfway through Britain’s seven-week snap election campaign, some in Theresa May’s team came to the conclusion that they had a problem — the candidate.

At a gathering of senior staff in Conservative campaign headquarters in central London, one of May’s top operatives told the sitting prime minister that she risked crashing and burning like Sarah Palin did in 2008. Palin had made a blistering start after being picked as John McCain’s running mate in the U.S. only to falter because she did not know how to sustain a national effort. To the operative, May was overly controlling and her inexperience would tell during a short, intense campaign.

May listened with good grace, according to a person who witnessed that encounter and relayed it not long afterward. May changed nothing. The British prime minister then still looked to be headed for a landslide, 20 points ahead in the polls. Though she had never run a national campaign before, she didn’t delegate like David Cameron had done so effectively in 2015.

“The main difference is her,” one senior campaign official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a week before election day, comparing May’s campaign to Cameron’s two years before. “She’s not as good a candidate. This is a first-time candidate who has never run for anything before other than her own constituency. No one could’ve been ready at such short notice, but you’re especially not ready if you’ve never run before.”

The result was plain to see by late Thursday. Despite record leads in the polls, a divided and seemingly weak opposition, public support for her hallmark policy of exiting the EU and one of the most experienced campaign teams ever assembled in Britain, May squandered the Conservative Party’s hard-fought majority.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is joined by her husband Philip as she delivers a statement to the media outside 10 Downing Street Friday morning | Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

British Prime Minister Theresa May is joined by her husband Philip as she delivers a statement to the media outside No. 10 Downing Street Friday morning after the election | Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

The Tories won 318 seats, 13 fewer than they started the campaign with and short of the 326 needed to command an outright majority in the House of Commons. Although May managed, in the immediate aftermath of the vote, to cling onto power with support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, who won 10 seats, it was a disaster for her and her party — far closer to the “coalition of chaos” she warned would take over under Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn than the “strong and stable” leadership she promised throughout the campaign.

Labour, with 262 seats, saw its share of the national vote rise to 41 percent, a proportion last delivered by Tony Blair in 2001. It was a personal triumph for Corbyn, securing his own future as Labour leader and resurrecting the party’s chances of seizing power at the next election.

Fiona Hill has served as Theresa May's joint chief of staff, with Nick Timothy | Steve Back/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Fiona Hill — May’s chief of staff, along with Nick Timothy — resigned in the hours after the result under pressure from backbench MPs | Steve Back/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

In those short seven weeks, the Conservative Party and its candidate made multiple mistakes — from a botched rollout of their party platform to its decision to focus on unwinnable seats and overlook marginal constituencies they assumed, wrongly, were well in hand. Toward the end, they denied the scale of the Labour surge. This failure of political intelligence and polling was compounded by an insistence on putting a candidate who was ill at ease on the trail and with the media front and center throughout the campaign.

In the aftermath, the public blame fell on the candidate herself and her closest aides, the co-Chiefs of Staff Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, who were both out of their jobs by Saturday, amid anger among Tory MPs over the outcome. But the story is bigger than the three of them.

The following account is based on interviews, conducted throughout the past two months, with more than a dozen people who worked closely on the Conservative campaign and spoke to POLITICO mostly on the condition of anonymity.


dropWhile the decision to call a snap election three years before the end of the government’s term came as a surprise to almost everyone in Westminster, May’s co-chief of staff Timothy had pushed for a vote for some time, according to one senior Tory aide close to him. Timothy, a long-standing May ally who was dropped from the party’s list of official candidates by Cameron’s team in 2014, wanted to establish May’s own mandate and led the process of putting together the party’s electoral manifesto.

“He didn’t want to be in government, only to find himself delivering David Cameron’s manifesto” from 2015, the senior aide said. He has wanted to deliver the 2017 manifesto all his life, the aide added.

For a week after the election was called, John Godfrey, May’s director of policy, worked with Conservative ministers on what they wanted from the manifesto. But then Timothy stepped in and made clear he was in charge, pulling it together alongside Godfrey and the Cabinet Minister Ben Gummer, according to an MP close to May who said the prime minister left it to Timothy to get on with it.

“It was [Timothy’s] manifesto and he wanted to make it clear he was the philosopher,” said a senior Tory familiar with the process.

The team set up base on the fourth floor of Conservative campaign headquarters, where “unless you had a reason to go or had been invited to the fourth floor, you didn’t go up,” a CCHQ staffer said.

May and Timothy wanted their own manifesto for government, but the main reason for the election was Brexit. May was convinced that she needed her own mandate to push through Britain’s exit from the bloc, leaving the single market and the customs union, in the face of internal opposition from Tory Remainers, a senior Tory aide close to May said.

Nick Timothy has served as Theresa May's joint chief of staff, with Fiona Hill | Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

“It was [Nick Timothy’s] manifesto and he wanted to make it clear he was the philosopher,” said a senior Tory. With the result in, Timothy was soon out of a job | Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

The manifesto flopped. Its centerpiece, briefed out to newspapers the day before the launch, was quickly dubbed the “dementia tax.”

It was a policy designed to plug the social care funding black hole by making people pay for care from assets over £100,000 cashed in after they die — a form of inheritance tax on middle class families. In a blog post for Conservative Home following his resignation on Friday, Timothy insisted the policy had been carefully thought through with active input from Whitehall, but it proved a disaster with the public. According to those familiar with how the policy was drawn up, May had little to do with it, delegating to Timothy.

As the policy snowballed into a major crisis, the prime minister faced a difficult choice: tough it out and risk it dominating the rest of the campaign, or flip flop, jeopardizing her entire pitch to the nation as a strong and stable leader. In the end she went for the U-turn, promising to cap the cost of care anyone would have to pay for but refusing to acknowledge that the policy had changed.

Liberal Democrat campaigners carry placards as they leave party headquarters to protest May's social care policy | Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

Liberal Democrat campaigners carry placards as they leave party headquarters to protest May’s social care policy | Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

It was a blow to a prime minister who until then had been untouchable. Under pressure, she seemed to crumble. What would European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker make of that, Labour MPs asked. She had gone from strong and stable to weak and wobbly in a week.

Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s director of communication, said it was a basic error of judgment to land the policy on people without careful groundwork. Unless people are gradually introduced to a big idea, the reaction tends to be “very, very strong,” he said. “I think there is definitely a sense that if you haven’t rolled the pitch and actually led people to a certain position then it becomes very hard.”

Testing policies with focus groups was an important part of the Cameron administration’s strategy, according to another senior member of the former prime minister’s team, who spoke on condition of anonymity. One held in Preston before the last election revealed that “you don’t touch houses,” with members of the group saying, unprompted, that they wanted to pass on their home to their children.

The manifesto turned the tide of the campaign, according to figures on the inside of the campaign who watched with horror as their internal poll lead numbers collapsed almost overnight. The effect was “dra-ma-tic,” an aide familiar with the Tory campaign’s internal numbers said on Friday. The Tories went from being 12 points ahead to just 2 points, according to internal phone polling carried out immediately after the manifesto was launched.

Jeremy Corbyn | Carl Court/Getty Images

Jeremy Corbyn | Carl Court/Getty Images

Labour felt the benefit. Older voters began shifting to the party as result, according to a senior Labour campaign official, bolstering the ranks of young people who were already convinced by Corbyn. “The Tories launched an all-out assault on their core voters,” the Labour official said. “The momentum was with us from that point.”

A week earlier, Labour’s manifesto was leaked, prompting extensive coverage of Corbyn’s populist platform of giveaways all funded with big tax rises on the rich and big business. Unlike in 2015 when even the slightest hint of extra borrowing invited screaming headlines about the deficit, this time round the proposal for extra spending barely received a mention. The public had grown tired of austerity and Corbyn was still nowhere near No. 10.

Senior Tory campaign strategists said that in hindsight their early lead in the polls was always vulnerable. The manifesto gave lifelong Labour voters flirting with May a reason not to switch their vote.

“One thing threw her off,” said one senior Tory campaign operative who has seen the numbers. “She had consolidated the Corbyn base, but the ‘dementia tax’ told them she was a typical Tory.”

A senior Tory MP involved in the campaign said shortly after polling day that the decision to include a free vote on fox hunting in the manifesto had also “contributed to a re-toxification” of the Conservatives. He said the policy had given a lot of encouragement to a “quite radicalized youth vote.” Turnout among voters aged 18-24 surged on Thursday, to 69 percent from 43 percent in 2015.

“[Labour] were circulating memes claiming Tories love ripping foxes to bits and it is very powerful. Particularly social media. You can’t give people that kind of ammunition,” he added.

Inside the Tory campaign bunker, the mood was dampened but quietly resolved. “The mood wasn’t great,” said one observer in CCHQ two days before the vote. “But I never once detected panic. It was just a case of getting on with what was in front of us every day.”

Relations among the core team remained good.

At one point in the midst of the manifesto shambles, Timothy approached Hill and ruffled her hair in jest from behind, moving to the other side of where she turned her head. The pair laughed. “There is a genuine intimacy there,” an observer said. “They are just really good friends. It’s obvious from the way they behave.”

But the way the manifesto was put together, and the overall day-to-day management of the campaign, hit on a perennial sore point among those outside the inner circle of three: May’s insistence on control and reliance on her two chiefs, Hill and Timothy. “This is her campaign,” said a senior campaign official a week before election day, referring to May. “Everything has to run by her. When you have three in the room and that’s it, that’s good for government, but not for campaigning.”


dropThe campaign had begun so well.

On Tuesday April 18, May stunned Westminster with the announcement of a snap general election.

Speaking in front of No. 10 Downing Street, the 60-year-old prime minister who had dreamed of that job since her childhood set out the Conservative’s message — stuck to doggedly for the following seven weeks — presenting the election as a choice between “strong and stable” leadership from her or “weak and unstable coalition government, led by Jeremy Corbyn.”

The speech electrified Westminster. May was off to a flyer.

The first poll pointed to a comfortable Tory win. ICM’s snap survey had the Conservatives on 46 percent, 21 points ahead of Labour on 25 percent.

Around her core of Hill and Timothy, May assembled a team with a proven track record. Marshaled by experienced Tory insider Stephen Gilbert, the prime minister also brought back Jim Messina, the U.S. data expert, Lynton Crosby, the Australian messaging guru, and pollster Mark Textor, all of whom helped Cameron secure a surprise majority in the 2015 election.

Gilbert, who left government after the Brexit referendum for PR firm Finsbury, returned to run the campaign. Messina was hiking on a volcano in Iceland when he took the call asking him to help. Crosby was on vacation celebrating his wife’s 60th birthday. Within days they were back in London.

Ben Gummer, the Cabinet Office Minister, lost his seat in the general election on Thursday. Gummer, along with Nick Timothy, was responsible for writing the Conservative manifesto | Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

Ben Gummer, the Cabinet Office minister, lost his parliamentary seat in the general election on Thursday. Gummer was part of May’s slimmed-down inner circle, crafting policy priorities | Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

Without a domestic opposition, as Corbyn was given up for dead by the media, May invented one — Brussels.

On May 3, the prime minister strolled outside No. 10 Downing Street to declare war on the EU after leaked accounts of a poisonously hostile dinner date between May and European Commission President Juncker.

In openly hostile language, May accused Brussels of making “threats” against Britain and deliberately leaking misleading information “to affect the result of the general election.”

“This is a bruise we need to keep kicking,” Crosby, who came up with the attack, told colleagues, according to a senior Tory official. It was a deliberate attempt to create an enemy to encourage the electorate to rally around May as their Brexit champion. There was some disquiet in Tory ranks about it, by those who thought it wasn’t in character for her, but it seemed to be working.

“It was the high point of her campaign,” a senior government official close to the prime minister said.

Lynton Crosby, an Australian political strategist, was one of a small group of consultants in the Tory inner circle during the general election campaign | Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

Lynton Crosby, an Australian political strategist, was one of a small group of consultants in the Tory inner circle during the general election campaign | Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

The next day, May 4, came nationwide local elections that served to reinforce the narrative of landslide inevitability despite the result, a convincing but not historic 38-27 win for the Tories over Labour. Britain’s doyenne of pollsters, Professor John Curtice, warned the results — an 8 percent swing to the Tories — pointed to a comfortable win in the general election but not a landslide. Still the narrative would not shift.

As the campaign progressed, the messaging that had been so strong at the start started to come off as more negative, uninspiring and unceasingly repetitive.

Ayesha Hazarika, a senior adviser to the former Labour Leader Ed Miliband, said the Tories’ biggest mistake was to focus their campaign on May. Anyone with a “modicum of objectivity” would have understood that May was not a “natural confident, fluent performer,” she said. “She doesn’t come alive in front of a crowd.”

“It was all so inept,” said a senior Tory MP involved in the campaign, speaking on the Friday after the election. “The Dalek messaging — strong-and-stable — the lack of listening, fingers in the ears and chanting ‘Brexit Brexit Brexit’ when people were trying to signal something.”

Labour, on the other hand, tried throughout to shift the conversation to austerity. Led by Seumas Milne, Karie Murphy and Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s inner circle ignored advice to hide Corbyn away, opening their campaign up to reporters to stir criticism of the Tories for not doing the same.

By focusing on policy they hoped to lure their opponents into making theirs up on the fly. Large rallies and regular policy announcements gave evening news bulletins something to lead on, while the Tories struggled to get noticed with boring campaign events closed from public view and nothing new to say.

“You cannot protect the public on the cheap,” Corbyn said the day after terrorists killed seven people and injured 48 on London Bridge, dominating headlines.

His last rally was in his constituency of Islington, North London, where shortly after 9 p.m. Corbyn appeared on stage at the two hundred year old Union Chapel, a working nonconformist church and concert venue, to a cacophonous cheer. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry warmed up the crowd, telling them that the “real star” of the campaign was not Corbyn, but the Labour manifesto.

“Jeremy would agree with that,” said James Schneider, Corbyn’s young adviser, who was brought into the top team from the left-wing mass membership movement Momentum.

Looking out at ecstatic faces throughout the hall and spilling out onto the street outside, Corbyn told the faithful that Labour’s campaign represented “the new center ground politics, what people actually want.”

While his leader was speaking, Schneider, checked his phone and came across the Sun newspaper’s polling day front page, which had just landed on Twitter. “Don’t Chuck Britain in the Cor-bin” ran the headline. He passed it round the team, who found it funny.

Attacks on Corbyn by the traditional media were dismissed by the Labour leader as signs that the mainstream political class was out of touch with the public.

Stephen Gilbert, at left | Andrew Parsons/Zuma Press

Stephen Gilbert, at left | Andrew Parsons/Zuma Press

Back at the Conservative HQ, little changed. At the start of the campaign Gilbert spoke first in all-staff meetings, followed by Crosby. As the campaign reached its climax Crosby slowly took over with messaging — his forte — increasingly central. In the final week Crosby was first to address the staff.

“Remember, Lynton had no relationship with her [May],” one of the most senior figures in the campaign said. “He doesn’t want to be running the thing — it almost killed him last time. His pacemaker was literally pumping out of his chest.”

The messaging remained tightly disciplined and increasingly negative. Inside Tory HQ they were confident. “This race is going to end as it started,” one of the campaign’s top officials told POLITICO, a week out from the vote. “She’s going to ask who’s best to negotiate Brexit. The more people who make their decision on that question the better.”


dropOn election night, the 12 most senior figures — including Hill, Timothy, Crosby, Messina, Gilbert and Textor — gathered to hear the exit poll in private before filtering back out into the main open-plan room at campaign headquarters where the rest of the staff watched the forecast of a hung parliament in horror.

“The room fell completely silent,” one staffer in the room said. “It was really depressing.”

Crosby spoke up in an attempt to lighten the mood. “He was like ‘what’s everyone doing? You can talk, you can smile’.”

Just two days before, the Tory team was bullish, convinced that the momentum had turned back in their direction. One minister told POLITICO May would return a substantial majority and commentators who suggested Corbyn could beat expectations would face “pretty searching questions.”

Theresa May hired Jim Messina, who was part of David Cameron's Tory campaign team in the 2015 election and previously worked as Barack Obama's deputy chief of staff and as a campaign manager for his re-election bid in 2012 | Pete Souza/White House

Theresa May hired Jim Messina, who was part of David Cameron’s Tory campaign team in the 2015 election and previously worked as Barack Obama’s deputy chief of staff and as a campaign manager for his reelection bid in 2012 | Pete Souza/White House

The minister was particularly critical of a newspaper “commentariat” who he felt overplayed Corbyn’s rise. “For some people who have been looking at this [from the outside] it has been quite a self-indulgent campaign,” the minister said. A few days later the minister was kicked out of parliament by voters.

Throughout the campaign, May’s team were convinced, despite concern about her weaknesses as a candidate, that the fundamental politics of Britain post Brexit would deliver them victory. Corbyn, they said, was simply not a credible prime minister and by backing a hard Brexit, May had ensured the support of a major chunk of UKIP’s voters. The calculation was half-right. May saw a 5.5 percent boost in her support — but Corbyn did even better, increasing Labour’s vote by 9.5 percent.

May’s team didn’t start out overconfident, and appeared to get the risk of taking the public and good poll numbers for granted. Timothy and Hill made a point of telling Messina, Crosby and Textor that the first thing they needed to do was deal with soaring expectations, according to one senior figure in Tory HQ familiar with the conversation.

But as weeks wore on, the Tory campaign appeared to grow complacent. Shock polls, such as analysis by YouGov predicting a hung parliament published in the Times a week before the election, were dismissed by May’s team. Messina tweetedthe head of YouGov to say: “Spent the day laughing at yet another stupid poll from  [YouGov].” That poll proved accurate.

Internally, eyebrows were raised at the “aggressive strategy” of targeting seats with comfortable Labour majorities in the final week of the campaign despite a major tightening in the polls. Representations were made to the Tory high command that it was too optimistic but were ignored, one senior campaign official said.

An analysis by the Guardian found the prime minister spent more than half the campaign in Labour-held seats, and just a fifth of her stops were in Tory marginals. Corbyn, on the other hand, who attended a total of 90 rallies during the short campaign, visited many areas where the Labour party had a sizeable majority.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is joined by her husband Philip after delivering a statement to the media outside 10 Downing Street Friday morning | Odd Anderson/AFP via Getty Images

British Prime Minister Theresa May is joined by her husband Philip after delivering a statement to the media outside 10 Downing Street Friday morning | Odd Anderson/AFP via Getty Images

Announcing his resignation, Timothy lamented the campaign’s targeting failures.

“One can speculate about the reasons for this, but the simple truth is that Britain is a divided country: Many are tired of austerity, many remain frustrated or angry about Brexit, and many younger people feel they lack the opportunities enjoyed by their parents’ generation,” he wrote. “The Conservative election campaign, however, failed to get this and Theresa’s positive plan for the future across. It also failed to notice the surge in Labour support, because modern campaigning techniques require ever-narrower targeting of specific voters, and we were not talking to the people who decided to vote for Labour.”

Timothy’s attack exposes problems within the campaign. But the result was a disaster for almost everyone involved, from Crosby, Messina and Gilbert to May, Timothy, Hill and the eight ministers who lost their seats.

The exception is Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who disappeared from view on Friday to “work in the foreign office” without saying a word in support of the prime minister and emerged in weekend speculation as a possible replacement for May.

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