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.
Read: The quotidian uncertainty of Britain’s monumental shift
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.