Analysis: How Theresa May caught Westminster unaware with snap election

Ben Riley-Smith
Theresa May, the Prime Minister - Getty Images Europe

It was meant to be the big reveal. A day after Theresa May had wrong-footed Westminster with the most unexpected general election for generations, Labour’s top brass was informed of the party’s campaign catchphrase. 

“For the many, not the few” would be the banner they would march to, Jeremy Corbyn’s two top spinners declared on Wednesday evening. It was a line that embodied the Labour leader’s anti-Establishment rhetoric and would skewer the out-of-touch Tories. 

There was just one snag - the line was Tony Blair’s. Mr Corbyn’s aides had inadvertently picked a phrase synonymous with the man they most want to confine to history. 

In fact it was was worse than that. The words were the ones Mr Blair famously entered into Labour’s “clause four” rule which replaced a promise to nationalise key industries - his most totemic battle with the party's left-wingers. 

“Great to see you’ve rolled out a New Labour strapline,” joked moderate Labour MP Shabana Mahmood, to laughter from others on the party’s national executive committee being briefed.

A senior Corbynite later admitted the blunder, but said they had decided to stick with it all the same: “Some things Blair did were worth keeping.”

The episode was a passing moment, but it shows the political advantage the Prime Minister stole on Tuesday when she announced the best kept secret in Westminster. 

"I have only recently and reluctantly come to this conclusion,” Mrs May said on the steps of Downing Street at 11.15am. 

"Since I became Prime Minister I have said that there should be no election until 2020, but now I have concluded that the only way to guarantee certainty and stability for the years ahead is to hold this election and seek your support for the decisions I must take.”

The announcement blindsided her rivals. Tim Farron the Liberal Democrat leader was first alerted via a text half an hour before from a key aide. 

“Hi boss, the news wires are saying there is a Downing Street announcement,” it read. “We need to look at options in case it’s a snap”. 

Jumping onto the next plane south at Manchester Airport, his scramble was being mirrored by party leaders across the country. 

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, was in her weekly Scottish cabinet meeting at Edinburgh’s Bute House when the interruption came. 

People pass a polling station sign in Brixton, south west London Credit: HANNAH MCKAY

Jeremy Corbyn – tellingly, his critics will say – was glad-handing the country's most influential trade union bosses in Parliament as the news broke. 

As for Paul Nuttall, Ukip’s leader was halfway to a soft play centre in Liverpool with his 6-year-old son when the call came in. He rushed to his sister’s house just in time to watch the announcement.

Opposition politicians were not alone - most cabinet ministers had been kept in the dark. 

David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, had scheduled a string of EU meetings from Bucharest to Vienna for Wednesday. Liz Truss, the Justice Secretary, had No 10 talks in the diary. 

But when they were informed at 9.30 that morning at a meeting in the Cabinet room, it was clear how much thinking had gone into the plan. 

“Everybody was very quiet,” said one in the room. “The general thrust of the nature of the manifesto was discussed.

"Key messages were announced – why there needed to be an election, why she changed her view, what would be achieved by having an election and voting Conservative.”

Those present were surprised by the thoroughness of the preparations, which a tiny group of aides and allies had been working on for weeks. 

Concern were raised over whether Labour – more than 20 points behind in the polls – would really vote for the election. Their support was needed to break the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, requiring support from two thirds of MPs. 

Cabinet ministers revealed they had been privately lobbied by anti-Corbyn Labour MPs to call an early election because it was the only way to get rid of their leader.

“The Prime Minister and everybody had a laugh about that,” said one present. And anyway, a back-up plan had been agreed: emergency legislation repealing the Act, which would only need a majority to pass. 

If the Cabinet briefing was coolness personified, Lib Dem HQ a few minutes’ walk away was anything but.

Aides had drafted four reaction statements when they heard an announcement was coming – one on Syrian military action, another on Northern Ireland's political stalemate. But luckily they had back-up plans ready to go when the truth emerged.

On a secret computer network was a folder entitled “snap”, password protected and accessible to only five aides, which contained draft plans for an early election. 

Key messages, likely policies, a “grid” of announcements and early campaign events had all be worked up just in case.

A briefing of their 30 staff was followed by a pep talk by Tim Gordon, the party’s chief executive. “This is what we want,” he told aides. “We’ve been waiting for this, we’ve been planning for this, let’s make it happen.” 

Back in Parliament, Mr Corbyn was delivering his own rallying cry. Addressing staff in his second floor leader’s office after dispatching of the union bosses, he appeared upbeat and confident. 

“We owe it to the people who are expecting great things of us and are looking to us to win this,” he told his closest aides, to whoops and applause. 

“The mood was absolutely enthusiastic,” said one Corbyn ally in the room. “You’re talking about people who are used to campaigning. That’s what they relish.”

But the optimism was not shared at Labour Party HQ, a wing of the party less touched by Corbyn fever who sensed the scale of the task ahead. 

“Nobody believed an early election was coming until it happened,” said a senior figure there when the news broke. “It was crazy, crazy, crazy.”

As the week wore on, the Tory advantage from Mrs May's move became clearer as the election team clicked into gear. 

The Conservative attack lines had been cleared before the announcement and were soon being deployed with a zeal not seen since the “long-term economic plan” of 2015. 

Mrs May offers “strong and stable leadership” versus the “coalition of chaos” under Labour, voters were told. Plus the only way to deliver Brexit was to vote Tory. 

The Tory setup is not without its problems, however. There are concerns from some that the clear lines of decision-making in the 2015 campaign have been replaced with numerous (and possibly competing) voices.

Worries also arise over unplanned rows that have been flaring up - such as over whether immigration and foreign aid targets will be kept in the manifesto - and taking more than 24 hours to be shut down. 

But whatever their problems, they are dwarfed by those facing Labour and its struggle to decide campaign phrases and install message consistency. 

The “for the many, not the few” blunder at the campaign briefing was compounded by another big idea. 

Mrs May would be dubbed “the real extremist” by pointing out the impact of austerity and NHS waiting lines on people’s lives, a Corbyn spinner declared.

But wouldn’t that draw attention to the Labour leader's exposure to the charge of extremism, asked one in the room. Heads nodded and the idea was swiftly ditched. 

The Tories believe they can take anywhere between 30 to 70 Labour seats in part through their campaign's ruthlessness on messaging, on management and on MP discipline. 

Labour believes Mr Corbyn’s underdog status and anti-Establishment message can chime with disillusioned voters and electrify the race. 

Both this weekend were saying the election was not over and every vote mattered. The difference was, only Labour aides said it with a straight face. 

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