Do you remember the ‘Long Term Economic Plan’? It was George Osborne’s favourite thing in the whole world, a phrase that managed to say a lot about the Cameron government whilst having the main bonus of meaning absolutely nothing at all. As time went on, it became clear the Tory ‘Long Term Economic Plan’ was a plan without a horizon, and yet George, the little Chancellor who could, was rolling with it right up until the EU referendum.
But with the end of Cameron, and subsequently Osborne, the ‘Long Term Economic Plan’ is dead (in lieu of flowers please send donations to Mr Osborne’s newly expanding bank account). The good news, however, is that Theresa May has got herself a shiny new catchphrase. If you’ve watched any politics show, or even just the News, I’m sure you will have heard it: only she can “deliver the strong and stable leadership Britain needs”. It was the focus of her first Party Political Broadcast. She was saying it on a factory floor in Bridgend, and then again in Leeds. If you watched The Andrew Marr Show or Peston on Sunday morning, there she was again, “strong and stable”.
It has become her ultimate political crutch. One wonders if it has been drummed into her to the point where it has become her stock answer to any question: “Mrs May, what would you like for dessert?”, “Well I shall be having the treacle sponge as it offers the strong and stable pudding that could not be offered by a rhubarb crumble.” “Prime Minister, we shall be travelling by helicopter to today’s campaign event,” “Let me stop you there, only the Prime Ministerial Jaguar can offer the strong and stable travel option I need to run an effective campaign.”
Message discipline is vital in any modern political campaign. With 24-hour rolling news coverage just one false-step, news cycle is not being driven by whatever positive message was on your campaign grid, but instead you find yourself having to spend half of every interview clarifying your theological position on homosexual sex. In order to assure that militant efficiency is maintained, the Tories have turned once again to election maven Lynton Crosby, the Australian mastermind of John Howard’s electoral dominance in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and driving force behind the Tories’ 2010 and 2015 electoral triumphs; a man known for ruthless efficiency in campaign organisation.
It was Crosby who in 2015 introduced the idea of ‘dead cat’ to British politics. In essence, this was the idea that if you are at the dinner table and someone throws a dead cat on it, all the previous conversation will be forgotten and switch to discussing the fact there is a dead cat on your table. The prime example of this phenomena from 2015 was the interview in which Defence Secretary Michael Fallon accused Ed Miliband of stabbing his brother in the back during the 2010 leadership election. Suddenly, everyone forgot about the momentum the Labour campaign had been building, and the conversation was now dominated by whether Ed was a bit of a Judas.
The discovery of this tactic put the media in a spin. They suddenly didn’t want to talk about dead cats, but whenever they saw one they had to point it out so that everyone knew it was a dead cat, but in doing so they were talking about the dead cat again. The same has started to occur with May’s new catchphrase. Journalists, especially those on the left, are getting annoyed at her saying it all the time because it supposedly makes a mockery of voters, the idea that they are too stupid to be served anything other than meaningless platitudes. Then, the journalists realise suddenly they are repeating it, and doing her work for her, and everything ends up a little bit like The Knights Who Say Ni, “Look! She said strong and stable again! Oh, no, now I’ve said strong and stable! Oh, I said it again!”
The point of all of this being that there is absolutely nothing anyone can do to stop RoboMay and her Dalek-style repetitions. There is a truism of politics that if you are saying something for the hundredth time, the average voter is only hearing it for the first time. The Tories have a long term economic plan; Sadiq Khan is the son of a bus driver; we give £350m a week to the EU. When voters start repeating these lines back to you on the doorstep you know they are working.
There are many problems with the current Conservative campaign. There is currently no substance behind the messaging; May’s record as PM has been one of failing to pass any substantial legislation other than Article 50 because her backbenchers throw a hissy fit, and the disconcerting tone of May insisting we are voting not for her party but for her directly, contrary to how British democracy actually works. However, the fact she has found a soundbite that resonates with voters is just part of the new political reality.
The only way to fight back against this soundbite culture is to embrace it. The SNP already kind of get it: a vote for the SNP is a vote for Scotland, but the current leaderships of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP have yet find a message they can use that is strong and stable to make an impact with the electorate. Oh, wait, there it is again…