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Monday, April 15, 2024

UK Election: Tories launched their secret weapon

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Lord peter Mandelson – the former Labour cabinet minister, and an instrumental architect of the “New Labour” project under Tony Blair, the others being Blair himself, Gordon Brown, pollster Philip Gould, and Blair’s trusted spin-doctor or Communications Chief Alistair Campbell – got it banged on when he said recently, in an interview with Channel 4 News, that for a party to win an election it must “capture the public zeitgeist, rhyme, tone and dynamic”.

And he must be incredibly proud that the Labour party is moving in this direction to assuage the public uneasiness on its economic credentials,  resurgence of party leader Ed Miliband popularity ratings and the pugnacious positive campaign he is leading. One of the biggest surprises so far in the election campaign is the resilience and utter consistency of Ed Miliband, which is gaining him a newfound stardom among supporters from across the political aisle, earning him a new name “Milifandom”, which is unabatedly trending on the micro-blogging social media site twitter – at the time of writing.   

The Tories, pinning their hopes on the bashing of Miliband charter in Tory-cheering Newspapers – The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, the Sun and The Daily Express – were hoping that Miliband’s election campaign will be a gaffe-prone wreck by now. But he is almost on the finishing line to become Prime Minister in the race between him and the Tory leader David Cameron.  

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And the Tories reaction 

to stop this from happening?

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They deployed their secret weapon, Boris Jonson, to countenance this from happening. And, secondly, stoking the embers of the “freighting prospect” of a Labour government “held to ransom” by the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), to shore up their English supporting base in England. 

The London Mayor, Boris Johnson, and a candidate for the Tories in the election for the safe seat of Uxbridge and Ruisilp is one of the most popular Conservatives currently, having a personal gravitas with voters that makes him come across as “real”, and an impeccably admirable ability to” feed the feral beast” (the press), and satisfy the public even in the most difficult of circumstances. He is a rare gem of a politician in Britain.

His decision to run for parliament, whilest still seeing through the end of his second term as Mayor of London, signaled his intention to run for his party leadership when David Cameron stepped down. That could even be after this election, if Cameron fails to form a government. Boris came under sever scrutiny from British journalists – chief gumshoe Jeremy Paxman no less – when he was speaking in weasel terms about his intension to return back to parliament. 

Asked by Paxman, at the fringes of the 2013 Conservative conference, whether he had any intentions to lob his hat into the Tory leadership ring; a slippery Boris Johnson waded into a cricket metaphor: “If the ball came loose from the scrum, it will be nice to have a crack at. But the ball is firmly where it is”.  With this reaction he deliberately escaped from sending jitters to his Eton school mate David Cameron in 10 Downing Street, and George Osborne who is having similar  ambition of his own at 11 Downing Street – the residence of the Chancellor.

It is clear that the only place Boris Johnson can give a shot to the Tory party leadership is in Parliament, not City Hall – office of the London Mayor. Because in parliament he can marshal his supporters – and there are many Tory MP who want to see him lead the party – and neutralize the bid of Home Secretary, Theresa May, and George Osborne, both likely challengers. 

Boris Jonson kept his announcement to run for parliament under rugs till the last minute. He allowed David Cameron to go on holidays in France with his wife Samantha and the kids in France last summer. He was invited to give a speech on the European Union (EU) in London. After delivering his speech, he opened the floor for questions. The stubborn albatross hanging it the ceiling won’t go away. A journalist asked him whether he will run for parliament, Boris Johnson, in his typical, colorful faux-naïf Borisim let it be known that “indeed” he will run, but jokingly cautioned that “things can really, really go badly wrong”. 

Immediately, Cameron twitted from France that he is happy that his “star” player is ready to play ball now, saying that “if you have a star player, you want him on the pitch”.  The only problem being that Boris plays by his own rules. His characteristically refreshing ability to speak his mind sometimes goes against the grain of party message discipline.  He is very popular with the British electorate. Even more popular than Cameron.

That is why when “Milifandom” started gaining currency the Conservatives deployed him. He campaigned alongside Cameron in London on Wednesday. And that attracted a huge media scrum. Before going out for campaigning on that day he was on Leading Britain’s Conversation (LBC) radio to host his monthly “Call-Boris”. On that day the dominant story was his party Chairman Grant Shapps, who is reported by the Guardian Newspaper to have amended his Wikipedia page favorably, and changed that of his enemy Tory colleagues to cast them in a bad light.  

When a caller asked Boris about this, he took the heat out of the story and turned attention on Nigel Farage, saying: “Wikipedia is Farrago, Nigel Farrago, where hidden hands can change stuff. My golden rule is don’t believe in everything you see in the net”. By drawing in the UKIP leader Nigel Farage in his reaction, he wants journalist to focus attention on Nigel so that he can respond – and keep a mini debate going like he did with Tony Blair when he described him like an “eel-like figure” during the Chilcot Iraq debate. All geared towards taking UKIP voters – most of them once Conservatives supporters – back. 


Labour-SNP deal talk refused to go away 

Labour were determined in week four of the election campaign to focus on one of the party’s strength: National Health Service (NHS).  To hit the ground running for the week, the Labour Press team sent a briefing note to journalist that Ed Miliband will be giving a speech on “how to rescue the NHS from mortal dangers of the Tories”. The speech should be preceded by a poster launch – big event in an election campaign in Britain – to show that the NHS is “under life support”. 

The launch went successfully well, but the core message that Ed Miliband wants to send out – that his party will recruit more doctors, nurses, and guarantee a weekly cancer test with 150million pounds in his first week in government – was drowned out by the incessant talks of a coalition between his party and the Scottish Nationalist.  So frustrated is Miliband now over  this question after repeatedly assuring voters it is off the table that he has restored to speaking like an American. Firmly ruling it out again, he told the BBC Newsnight Evan Davis in the Leaders interview that:  “It isn’t gonna happen”. 

To scare English voters from voting for Labour, the Tories are now campaigning heavily to encourage voters to spurn a Labour/SNP coalition. Boris Johnson set the tone on Monday when, in his weekly Daily Telegraph column, he laid into Miliband and the Nicola Sturgeon, warning voters to reject “weevils”, and having Ed Miliband “peeping from the sporran of Nicola Sturgeon like a baffled baby Kangaroo”. 

To reinforce the message, the Tories rolled out former Prime Minister, Sir John Major. In his impassioned speech in the West Midlands, the “political saint”, as the Sun Newspaper Political Editor Tom Newton Dunn refers to him, Sir John Major entreated voters of the need for a “stable”  and “strong”  government – not  a “Leftwing coalition opened to a dose of blackmail”

As the last Tory leader who runs a majority government for the Conservatives in 1992 – sadly for the Tories since then they have not won an election outright, – Sir John Major knows what it takes to run a majority government. The Tories are hopeful that him sharing his experience of will make them shudder about “backroom deals to pass a bill in parliament”, hard-heard negotiations that it comes with it, and the copy-and-past fashion to incorporate the interest of other parties in any government programme, all of this will give voter a pause for thought before voting for Labour and the SNP, as polls are indicating that they will end up forming a government.

But not all Tories are impressed with this strategy. Many Tory grandees, like Lord Forsyth, Lord Tibet and Lord Bell have all described this tactic of whipping up English nationalism in the election as “short-termist” and “a dangerous game”.  Lord Tibet, who was the Chairman of the Tories under Margaret Thatcher, in an interview with the BBC Daily Politics’ Andrew Neil, had a spasm of nostalgia for the good-old days of Sir Winston Churchill, Clemet Attlee, Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, “who were real politician and know what the real people feel, not politicians who are from University, to Whitehall (UK government Ministries) as advisers to ministers and then parliamentarians”. 

The sage Lord Tibet got is spot on. Since the start of the campaign both parties are running a stage-managed election, where set-piece speech are made to launch policies, and wearing hig-vis jacket at construction sites or manufacturing companies for photo-opportunity, avoiding the real voters. All this risk-averseness by the campaign mangers of all the parties – especially Labour and the Tories – are designed to avoid the “Gillian Duffy” moment.  So called after Gillian Duff, who in the 2010 election buttonholed then-Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to give him her piece of mind over her family woe.  All this happened on-camera in front of the media – in what is called in Westminster journalese term “on-camera election walkabout”. 

Whilest the encounter was tough for Brown, it was not damaging. What was damaging was his expletive slur when he boarded his car to go, forgetting that his microphone was not turned off, he described Gillian as “a bigot”. The story reflected badly on him. And he later apologised to her. Before Brown, the then Deputy Labour leader under Blair, John Prescott, in the 2005 election had an egg thrown at him, and an impatient John Prescott punched the perpetrator in public and gave him the strength of his hands. 

This election no party want such incidents in their news grid. But going far to avoid, they are not reaching real voters.  Both Ed Miliband and David Cameron have devised platforms to be tested by voters. Ed with his “Question Time”, and David Cameron with his “Prime Minister Direct”. But both of them are not anywhere near Tony Blair’s “Masochism Strategy “, where during elections Blair takes tough questions from voters. John Mayor’s 1992 “Soapbox” election was also effective, as it engaged voters.

The closer we came to stumble in this election was when David Cameron faces a question from young voters. Asked about the minimum wage, he said “it differs from region to region”. Pressed by the questioner in a followed up question to come up with the figures, he conceded: “I don’t have the figures in my head”.  And Ed Miliband being heckled by some voters in the campaign trail. 

To win a majority they need to win both the ground war – which is through their activists on the ground, delivering party leaflets to voters on the doorsteps – and the air war – which is selling their message on radio, television, photo-ops and posters.  On the former both parties have to ratchet up their efforts, as time is running short. 


Amadou Camara studies Political Science at the University of The Gambia. He is a researcher on British politics, and the Communications Officer of the National Youth Parliament. He can be reached at: [email protected]                 


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