There are lots of reasons why the Conservative election campaign went wrong. A few things come immediately to mind: a botched manifesto, complacency, a lack of vision, a jingoistic approach to Brexit, and putting too much emphasis on one person. There is one enduring thing, though. The Maybot- Theresa May’s, and in many cases other Conservative commentators’ and candidates’, reliance on short and snappy slogans no matter the question.
Staying on message is one thing. Giving alarmingly similar answers, or pivoting to a theme, or even giving the same speech again and again, is acceptable in modern politics. People expect that. Answering every question with a series of sentence long slogans is another thing entirely.
This part of the Tory strategy seems to have been copied from the Vote Leave campaign. They found an effective, but meaningless, slogan that worked and ran with it. On the campaign train, you would hear ‘Vote Leave, take back control’ at every event and in every speech. At the debates, it formed part of every single answer and often comically so.
In the post referendum breakdown of the campaign, that slogan and the robotic way in which it was repeated was highlighted as particularly effective. The idea of ‘taking back control’ resonated with people, even if explanation as to what that actually meant was lacking. Getting that concept out comprehensively and cleanly made it successful – people were able to fill in the blanks as to what they felt that should mean, and who should be taking the control of what from whom.
That slogan worked because it was clean, meant something to people, and was the only slogan repeated in such a way. Theresa May’s slogans were messy, meaningless and copious.
‘Strong and stable’. ‘Coalition of chaos’. After ‘Brexit means Brexit’. None of these things mean anything, and none of these things resonate with people. Take back control provokes a response, because it means enough for people to project what they want onto the end of it and it sounds like a message. ‘Strong and stable’ sounds like someone trying to worm their way out of answering a question.
The Theresa May and her team seem not to have noticed this. Since the election, the catchphrase has changed from ‘strong and stable’ to ‘certainty and stability’, now repeated in speeches similarly. This is not a sign of strength. It is a sign of a leader unable to recognise mistakes.
May will face a leadership challenge, either publically or internally, before she wants to leave. May is not equipped to see those challenges off. If she continues to bluntly refuse to learn from her mistakes, she never will be.