Barack Obama rang Conservative headquarters on election night with a mistaken but reassuring message for Theresa May because Labour insiders had told him the party was expecting to lose seats, according to a new book about the election.
Shortly before the exit poll, which sent shockwaves through both party headquarters, the former US president contacted a friend in Tory central office with the soothing news that Labour was expecting to see the Conservatives increase their majority.
The revelation is contained in extracts from a new book, Betting the House, by journalists Tom McTague and Tim Ross, published in the Mail on Sunday.
They also claim that Fiona Hill, one of May’s joint chiefs of staff, was tipped off a few minutes in advance about the result of the exit poll, which is usually tightly guarded by the broadcasters.
The BBC presenter Andrew Marr admits to having contacted Tory HQ with details of the exit poll that contradicted Obama’s message before the results were announced – but told the authors it was only seconds before 10pm. Details of the poll are kept to within a very small team of senior staff.
The initial reaction to the exit poll, which is a large-scale survey conducted on thousands of voters as they leave the polling station, was disbelief. May’s other chief of staff, Nick Timothy, reportedly winked and told a colleague: “Don’t worry about that, it’s all fine. Nothing we’ve seen says anything like it.”
But as results from constituencies up and down the country confirmed the accuracy of the exit poll, Timothy apparently wondered aloud whether May should consider stepping down, rather than endure the wave of criticism that would follow. The book claims that May’s husband, Philip, thought that his tearful wife might have to resign for the sake of her “wellbeing”.
But the authors claim May became determined to stay on after the Brexit secretary, David Davis, said he would support her, and she received a text message from Boris Johnson, in the early hours of the morning, urging her to keep her “chin up”, and promising: “We are with you and behind you.”
The pair were considered the most likely leadership contenders in the aftermath of the catastrophic election result.
The extracts suggest May’s advisers were bitterly divided between presenting her as a radical reformer, or the “strong and stable” face of continuity.
At an “away day” in February in her country retreat, Chequers, May’s political strategist Chris Wilkins and Timothy set out a series of social and economic reforms, and said the prime minister must be presented as “the person who always fought for relentless change”.
But Lynton Crosby, the Australian elections expert, dismissed their approach as “classic populist woolly bullshit”, according to the book.
Crosby told the senior advisers, who had gathered to discuss the party’s strategy over a meal of chicken lasagne and potatoes: “By the way, mate, it’s not about being the change candidate, it’s about doing what people want.”
Crosby, regarded as one of the masterminds of David Cameron’s unexpected victory in 2015, was sceptical about the idea of an early election, which May had repeatedly said was not necessary. But he and colleague Mark Textor nevertheless took on the job of advising the Conservatives.
When the election campaign kicked off, the stripped down message of “strong and stable leadership” became the central thrust of the Tory campaign – and allowed Labour to present Jeremy Corbyn as offering a radical alternative for voters disgruntled with the status quo.
Wilkins told Ross and McTague: “In the campaign, we basically just screwed the brand completely, hers and the party’s. We suddenly became the establishment candidate and Corbyn the candidate for change.”
Timothy was determined to press ahead with some policies for change – including the controversial changes to social care funding, which were included in the manifesto.
And May reportedly backed his determination to include detailed policy in the closely-guarded document, despite Crosby’s argument that: “I hate policy, it only causes problems.”
This article was written by Heather Stewart Political editor, for theguardian.com on Sunday 10th September 2017 16.09 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010