— Mike Smithson (@MSmithsonPB) September 5, 2017
Today Conservative Home have published the first of three magna opera on the 2017 Conservative general election campaign which saw Mrs May squander David Cameron’s hard won majority. Once all three have been published, I plan to do a more detailed thread on them.
This excerpt from today’s piece confirms the fears many of us had when the election was called, that the snap election wouldn’t be able to replicate the long term planning and brilliance that the 2015 Tory campaign had in such a short time frame. (The bold bits below are my emphasis.)
The snap election, and getting the band back together
Inevitably, the dominant factor in how the Conservative campaign was constructed was the need for speed. Though some doubted the claims at the time that the Prime Minister had only decided to call the snap election over her Easter holiday, immediately preceding the announcement, all the senior figures I have spoken to, and all the evidence I have seen, confirm that this is indeed what happened. People who had been involved with the 2015 campaign were recalled to CCHQ less than 24 hours before she announced the election on the steps of Downing Street.
That flurry of calls at the end of the Easter Bank Holiday weekend was crucial. In 2015, the Conservative campaign team had secured a majority against all expectations. As I recounted shortly afterwards, the 2015 campaign hadn’t all gone to plan, and the end result rested on just 901 voters across the most marginal seats, but it had worked nonetheless. There was no doubt in the leadership’s mind that they needed, in the words of one senior participant, “to put the band back together, to repeat the trick”.
But after the 2015 election, many of the key specialists who made up “the band” had scattered to the four winds. Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor, who did the messaging, day-to-day management and polling, were still on retainer to CCHQ but were in Australia. Jim Messina, who crunched the data, and his team had returned to the United States. Craig Elder and Tom Edmonds, who had cut their teeth in digital campaigning as part of the in-house CCHQ team in the run-up to 2010, had gone back to running their consultancy – dipping into politics to work for Stronger In in the referendum, but not staying on as part of the Conservative Party operation.
A rusty machine and a hollowed-out operation
They all answered the Prime Minister’s call, dropping a variety of other jobs to return to CCHQ as consultants once more. But immediately there were signs that “repeating the trick” wouldn’t be as easy as simply getting everyone in the same room again.
For a start, to quote one of Crosby’s favourite sayings, “you can’t fatten a pig on market day”. While the 2015 election campaign undoubtedly took Labour by surprise, it had been a long time in the making. The top team planning and preparing for it had been in place for almost two years before polling day – gathering data, developing and testing messages, training up staff and establishing what they intended to do and how they intended to do it. By contrast, their swift reunion in 2017 provided no time to prepare. They were pitched straight into running a campaign that became live only a few hours after they had agreed to take part in it (I’m told that in some cases, contracts were still being discussed after Theresa May’s announcement in Downing Street).
Nor was the machine they returned to in the same state as they had left it in 2015. Senior, mid-ranking and junior staff with election experience had variously been signed up as Special Advisers, moved to the private sector, or been let go as part of the regular cost-cutting that tends to take place after costly election campaigns. “They had let things wither on the vine, starving [CCHQ of] both campaigning platforms and people,” one senior participant says, “The groundwork three months out [from the election] was not ready, but that question wasn’t asked.”
“Crosby was basically chief executive of CCHQ for 18 months to two years [before 2015]” another insider recalls, with a senior team reporting directly into him, including teams responsible for Voter ID, Digital, Field Campaigns, the Conservative Research Department (CRD), Press, and the oversight of 120 local campaign managers, but “by the start of 2017, lots of those roles had gone.” Darren Mott, the former Field Director, had stayed on as Director of Campaigning, and the staff responsible for each of these roles now reported to him, but he was not given the power which Crosby had previously wielded.