Two years after the last general election and less than a year since the Referendum on EU membership, British voters are being offered a combination of the two – to the dismay of a lot of people facing seven weeks of claims and counter-claims. Seven weeks of a media relations battle for coverage to win votes, mainly employing negative campaigning.
Which party will play the media game most skilfully? And which party leader will drop the biggest clanger and prove the greatest liability to their party?
This is a general election like no other, following an extraordinary succession of events.
Astonished David Cameron won a small clear majority at the General Election 2015 meaning, to his shock, that he would have to go through with manifesto pledges that could have been conveniently dropped if he had entered into another coalition with the chancer Liberal Democrats.
He duly staged a Referendum on European Union membership and, to his amazement, found the majority of British voters did not support his wish to remain in the EU. So, even though he had been elected for five years and given the British people the choice on EU membership, David Cameron petulantly flounced out of Downing Street, leading to Theresa May’s unopposed election as Conservative leader and Prime Minister. She promptly abandoned the Cameron manifesto and policies – and is now going to the ballot box partly to seek a public mandate for her politics and position as the country’s leader.
Despite the outcry from Brendas who are suffering politics overload and don’t want to think it through, I can’t help feeling Mrs May is right. Technically, the party in power chooses the prime minister and has every right to change that prime minister without going to the country. But if that change also leads to a change of manifesto – or a Cabinet who cannot remember what the manifesto promised in the first place – it is time for a new manifesto and a new general election.
By an amazing coincidence, Theresa May’s Conservative Party is also a record 24 points ahead of the Labour Party in the opinion polls, according to a YouGov survey for The Times.And, in Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has the least effective leader in living memory – a man who makes Michael Foot look like Jack Kennedy. The same YouGov poll found Mrs May leading on the question of “best Prime Minister” – by 54 per cent to just 15 per cent for Mr Corbyn.
Viewed from this perspective, could it be a case of Theresa Gambina May ordering a mercy hit on a deluded old man who has been getting on her nerves and making the place look untidy? Tough love, Tory-style!
From a media relations angle, what hope is there for Jeremy Corbyn in this general election? Most of his MPs don’t really support him, he is so far behind in the polls almost no one thinks he has a shadow of a ghost of a chance – and the majority of the national press backs Mrs May.
It looks hopeless for him and Labour. As things stands, the Conservatives could be returned with a landslide majority of 150 or more seats, possibly leaving the Labour Party mortally wounded.
But let’s look at it another way. This is the general election that Jeremy Corbyn has been waiting all his political career to fight. Despite his parliamentary party hating him, he has hung on for dear life as party leader – just for this battle. The British public loves an underdog, and in this general election Jeremy Corbyn is the greatest Labour underdog there ever has been in modern times. This will come across strongly in the TV coverage of him on the election war path.
Relations with most of the national print media will be tough for him. Unless something extraordinary happens, The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Daily Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Sun on Sunday, the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Express will all support Theresa May – and with considerable force. Only the Daily Mirror, the Guardian, the Observer, Sunday People and Sunday Mirror are likely to back Jeremy Corbyn.
However, Jeremy Corbyn got elected as Labour Party leader – TWICE, remarkably – by being effective out on the stump, electrifying a predominantly young, idealistic vote, and bringing people of all ages who had quit Labour because it was too right wing under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown back into the fold. Television and social media may prove to be the decisive media in this general election – and a fired-up Corbyn could play well on both.
Much of the media relations madness of a general election comes down to unpredictability. In the 2010 general election, Gordon Brown made a terrible gaff over a forgotten radio microphone. After that, he was dead in the water.
Theresa May is not a particularly assured media performer. Her instinct is to hide unless an interview absolutely suits her purpose. She has taken a step back in time by refusing a televised debate with her opponents. No doubt her senior advisers have told her it is an unnecessary risk. But like a weeping wound, that could damage her, especially if ITV and the BBC decide to TV stage debates without her.
Who will really drop a clanger? My favourite is Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, who dodged the question when asked if he thought homosexual sex was a sin. I always thought he looked and sounded hopelessly green – like a Lancashire Tintin – but that confirmed it. No matter that he later retracted and said he didn’t think gay sex was sinful, the damage was done. He had turned off the gay community – a very LibDem constituency – with his political naivete and evangelical Christianity.
Scottish Nationalist Party leader Nicola Sturgeon also looks vulnerable. It is going to be hard for her not to lose seats in the general election because in 2015 her party won almost every seat going in Scotland. And the campaign in Scotland could be fought as much on Scottish independence as Brexit.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas is an assured media performer and is already having a good media election.
But Ukip leader Paul Nuttall is coming across as a bit of an idiot. He is seriously in need of better media training and will be lucky to win a seat for himself, let alone have a wider national impact on the general election.
Indeed, some good could come out of this general election. It has already made Evening Standard Editor George Osborne’s position as an MP untenable. Osborne couldn’t possibly go on the election trail to defend his seat while editing the Standard and has been forced to step aside as an MP. I had had a feeling he would not last long trying to ride both horses.
And even if Jeremy Corbyn is summarily executed by The Godmother May, it will be doing the Labour Party a favour, giving them a chance to elect a more sensible new leader three years earlier than they had expected. Already, two sensible possible replacements, Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper, are vying for position – in the hope Corbyn will immediately step down following a defeat at the polls (by no means guaranteed when dealing with Britain’s most stubborn man).
Personally, I have broken a lifetime on the sidelines by volunteering to canvass for my constituency MP who is Labour. Why? First, he is a good MP and moderate – not a Jeremy Corbyn supporter.
Second, he could struggle against a big swing to the right and will need all the help he can get, particularly in his relations with the media.
And, third, I am still incensed at being insulted by national newspaper columnist Dan Hodges – former Labour MP Glenda Jackson’s son and an ex-Labour activist – who wrote an article recently headlined: “If you’re still a member of Labour tomorrow YOU ARE A RACIST.”
I would like to inform Desperate Dan, who confidently predicted in his column that Hillary Clinton would romp home in the US Presidential election and that the Remain camp would win by a country mile in the EU Referendum, that, yes, I am still a Labour Party member but, no, I am not a racist.
With his track record, if Dan Hodges predicts a massive Theresa May victory in his newspaper column, there must be hope for Jeremy Corbyn.
* This article is purely the viewpoint of the author and not of any other individual or organisation