Boris Johnson Bets on a Strategy Theresa May Ignored

The prime minister and the opposition took entirely different lessons from Britain’s 2017 election. Both are testing their conclusions to destruction.

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn stand in front of lecterns during a TV debate.
Handout / Reuters

The Conservative Party did not lose Britain’s 2017 general election, but it has spent the last two and a half years trying to understand why it did. The Labour Party, in contrast, did lose the 2017 election but has acted as if it did not, convinced that its only mistake was not doing enough of what had worked the time before.

This is the strange context in which the latest British election is being fought. To a remarkable extent, this election is offering voters the same choice it offered in 2017: between a new Conservative prime minister with a healthy poll lead asking for a personal mandate to deliver Brexit, and an unpopular Labour leader standing on a platform of redistributive populism and insisting that it is policy, not personality, that matters most. As in 2017, it is a contest between two sharply competing visions: an end to Britain’s 40-year economic integration with the European Union on the one hand and an end to the post–Margaret Thatcher consensus of free markets and low taxes on the other.

The fundamental difference between 2017 and 2019, then, is not in the basic choice on offer but in how this choice is being sold to the electorate. This time, while Labour is still declaring its radicalism as loudly as possible, the Tories have disowned theirs almost entirely. No longer are they a party of upheaval. Instead, they have placed their bet on a promise to return the country to normal. As Prime Minister Boris Johnson would say, Just get Brexit done first.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s core strategy is to embrace radicalism, and in doing so feed off the publicity it generates, turning Tory attack lines into free campaign commercials. Each Labour policy is actively designed to impose costs, not avoid them, on the minority of Britons who have large assets, income, or wealth, and to redistribute it across the population. Criticism of these policies, therefore, in Labour’s eyes, only serves to elevate them in the public consciousness.

This is, in effect, the same strategy the party employed in 2017, when it won far more seats than expected but still fell well short of a parliamentary majority. It comes through clearly in its latest manifesto, which promises to increase day-to-day government outlays by £80 billion ($103 billion) a year to pay for a slate of new giveaways. The scale of the proposed spending spree means that for every extra pound the Conservatives are proposing to spend if elected, Labour is offering 28. The crux of Labour’s plan, however, is not so much the scale of the spending but the proposal to load all of the extra tax burden onto the top 5 percent of earners. Corbyn and his aides are betting that the more the Tories attack Labour’s manifesto, the more the 95 percent of the country that would benefit from the Labour plan will hear about it. In other words, they have taken the strategy that failed to win the last election, and doubled down on it.

Despite emerging from the 2017 contest with the most votes and the most seats, the Tories, by comparison, had thrown away their slender majority in a vote they seemed all but guaranteed to win—and win big. It was a historic debacle that eventually cost Theresa May her job and the Conservative Party the chance to enact the version of Brexit it wanted. This year, under a new leader but with a strikingly similar offer, it is now crystal clear what the Tories have concluded went wrong the first time: Whereas May claimed it was because they allowed Labour to paint them “as the voice of continuity,” Johnson has decided they offered voters far too much change last time.

It is no coincidence that this second conclusion is the same one reached by the veteran Conservative campaign guru Lynton Crosby, whose protégé Isaac Levido is running the party’s election strategy this year. Having written a book on the 2017 general election, I am struck by how similar this year’s Conservative general election campaign is to what Crosby advised the party to do then, only to be overruled.

In an April 2017 memo, before May announced the election, Crosby told the Conservative leader that voters wanted a back-to-basics, practical conservatism, focused on stability, caution, and pounds in voters’ pockets. They wanted the world to calm down, not speed up. He was ignored. May’s own aides insisted that Brexit was a cry for change from those who for too long had been abandoned by the political establishment. Here was an opportunity to restore trust in politics by being honest about the challenges ahead. This instinct formed the basis of the party’s 2017 manifesto—a menu of misery that proposed not only a radical overhaul of old-age care (quickly dubbed the “dementia tax”) but also the scrapping of free school lunches for all but the poorest young children, cuts to retiree benefits, reductions to future pension increases, and fewer guarantees against raising taxes.

It may have been honest, but it was also an epic disaster politically. From the moment the document landed, May was in trouble; her lead in the polls slowly fell until it had all but disappeared by election day. Part of the problem was that while the prime minister and her team disagreed with Crosby’s position that people wanted stability, they had never run a national campaign before and so deferred to his judgment on messaging. Following Crosby’s advice, May toured the country as the face of a “strong and stable” government battling an opponent she painted as dangerous. She wanted to be the candidate of change, but she was selling herself as the opposite—running, in effect, two campaigns.

In the aftermath of the result, those close to May and Crosby each began shifting blame over which side had cost the party outright victory. May’s aides—and even the prime minister herself—concluded that she had failed to stick to her convictions to become the change candidate. She should not have offered strong and stable, her supporters said, but strong and radical. Crosby and his supporters pushed back, lambasting May and her team for blowing a winnable election.

With May’s authority shot and her most senior aides having quit or being forced to resign, there was no contest over who would win the narrative battle. Crosby had successfully helped steer the Tories back to power in 2010, masterminded David Cameron’s shock victory five years later, and overseen both of Johnson’s successful tilts at the London mayoralty in 2008 and 2012. He was a man with many friends in the party, including its next leader.

After last weekend’s release of Johnson’s manifesto, in which all the misery had been stripped out, along with any other problematic policy that caused the party trouble in 2017, I went back to Crosby’s original memo, which my coauthor and I had obtained and included in our 2017 book. It read like a guide to everything Johnson is trying this time around.

Crosby’s memo starts off arguing that the Conservatives would need to “nail down the ‘why’” in terms of the timing of the election, before saying that voters were “actively seeking to avoid uncertainty and maintain the status quo.” Fast-forward to 2019: From day one of the current campaign, Johnson has repeatedly told voters that he did not want this election, but he had to call it because Parliament was blocking Brexit. And ever since becoming prime minister, Johnson has argued that Parliament must “get Brexit done” so it can get back to the bread and butter of politics: improving public services and growing the economy.

Crosby finished his memo with a five-point plan: Be clear why this election is needed. Frame it as a choice between stability and uncertainty. Demonstrate to the country that the only way to secure that stability is with a solid and united party. Convince the public that this party is the Tories. And, finally, take every opportunity to contrast with Corbyn. On each point, Johnson is sticking to that script. He has set up his alibi for the election, framed it as Crosby suggested, repeated the line that every Conservative election candidate has signed up to his Brexit plan, warned of chaos with Labour, and repeatedly hammered Corbyn over his leadership on Brexit.

Corbyn, then, is using the same tactics he employed last time, but amped up to 11, while Johnson is running a campaign that May could have run but chose not to. In a way, they are both fighting the 2019 election with 2017 scripts.