Tory election campaign lacked clear policy message, MPs tell review

Theresa May European Council meeting, 22-23 June 2017

Theresa May is being urged by Conservative MPs and defeated candidates to offer voters clear messages on policy and to shake up the party machine after June’s catastrophic election performance.

An internal review being carried out by the former minister Eric Pickles and set to be discussed at the party’s October conference will contain painful home truths about the campaign, which led to Labour achieving the biggest jump in its share of the vote since 1945.

Pickles, who is being aided in the task by Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers, has been told the party lacked a convincing political narrative, leaving MPs little riposte to Labour’s policies on the doorstep.

The review has also heard that Conservative headquarters (CCHQ) ignored early warning signs from MPs in the south of England that they were being outgunned on the ground by Labour for the first time in years, and that overconfidence about the result meant candidates in marginal constituencies were left exposed.

Neil Carmichael, who lost his Stroud seat, said: “Seats like mine in 2015 were treated as marginals and the sense was if you were treated as a marginal people would come and help, but this time the assumption was seats like mine would have been easily won, so that sent a message.”

He said the biggest problem was not the party’s electoral ground game but its absence of a clear policy message. “The big absence from the manifesto was anything significant about the economy, which was a great story to tell. What was at the core of the manifesto was ‘strong and stable’, foxhunting and social care.”

Carmichael said that by pressing ahead with what May called a “red, white and blue Brexit” the Conservatives had shown they had little to say to young people, who tended to be pro-European. “Over the previous year we had spent time showing we weren’t listening to young people. They clearly felt disconnected. We had no message for them whatsoever,” he said.

Ben Howlett, who lost his Bath seat to the Liberal Democrats, said he had been damaged by the party’s Brexit position in a fiercely remain constituency; but argued that the “strong and stable” message was not enough to carry the party through a long campaign.

“We were trying to run a campaign to strengthen the prime minister’s hand in the Brexit negotiations. In a short, sharp campaign that might have been the right strategy, except that it was a seven-week campaign.”

He also criticised the manifesto, which abruptly introduced the radical policy of increasing older people’s contributions to the costs of meeting their social care needs. “The policy is sound; the communication required a two- to three-year lead-in,” he said. “It’s the wrong platform to be having that discussion.”

Howlett also underlined the concern expressed by other senior Conservatives that the party had little to say to younger voters, who strongly backed Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.

Senior Downing Street advisers have been touring Westminster thinktanks scouting for ideas to appeal to younger voters. The free market Adam Smith Institute published a paper last week calling for a cut to air passenger duty – which it called the “Ibiza tax” – for the under-30s.

George Freeman, the Norfolk MP and chair of the Conservative policy forum, used a column in the Telegraph this weekend to ask: “Why would you support capitalism if you have no prospect of owning any capital?” Other senior figures, including the communities secretary, Sajid Javid, regard forcing open the housing market as key.

While policy renewal will take time, some senior Tories are pressing for a more rapid shakeup of the party’s election-fighting machine. The Conservative party chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, is under growing pressure to pay the price for the poor performance in June and step down.

May’s chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, resigned in the immediate aftermath of the election amid complaints about their controlling management style and refusal to pass on criticism. But the chairman remains in place.

The Tory MP Justin Tomlinson tweeted recently: “CCHQ (campaigning side) needs a complete revamp/clearout – very badly exposed in the snap election.”

One Conservative MP with knowledge of the internal review said there was considerable anger among the grassroots membership towards May and her cabinet, and about the huge sum paid to the political strategist Lynton Crosby. The MP said the biggest surprise was that McLoughlin was still chairman when he had shown himself to be “not up to the job”.

Grant Shapps, the Conservative co-chairman during the party’s 2015 victory, said it was unfair of May to keep McLaughlin in post. “Usually, win or lose, a party chairman leaves that post after an election, so for Patrick to be expected to stay on as chairman after the disaster of 2017 rides pretty close to being a cruel and unusual punishment,” he said.

Shapps blamed a lack of on-the-ground campaigning, as well as a lacklustre social media campaign, for the Conservatives’ performance. “This time, we seemed to unlearn the lessons from 2010 that led to the successful 2015 campaign. We did not rebuild a ground team and it was a tragic mistake. We already had a ground force like Momentum and we let it go.

“There was also a lack of understanding that real people posting on social media are worth 10 times a paid advert. The result we had was partly due to not putting those key parts of the ground campaign in place.”

Other senior Conservatives have suggested the party was so spooked by the Mark Clarke case, in which a young Tory activist killed himself, and the expenses scandal over the use of Tory battlebuses at the 2015 election, that it was felt safer not to try to reconstruct a ground army on the same scale.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Heather Stewart and Rowena Mason, for theguardian.com on Monday 28th August 2017 15.09 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010