Over the course of the last week, it has become increasingly clear that the prime minister intends to fight this general election not on the basis of her vision for Britain, but with a risk-averse campaign that will be defined by its negativity. In the run-up to June, voters look set to be treated to the spectacle of ad hominem insults being slung at the leader of the opposition and predictable sloganeering without substance, deployed in an attempt to deflect scrutiny of Theresa May’s programme for government.
No general election campaign unfolds without its fair share of cliched slogans and unpleasant attacks on political opponents. For better or worse, they are part of our political culture. But they should not preclude developing a deeper vision that sits behind the slogans or the articulation of policies and pledges that can be scrutinised by the public. What is concerning about May’s pitch to the country is that beyond the nasty attacks and tired old slogans, there is nothing but blank space.
This is even more alarming given the context of the double-digit poll leads enjoyed by the Conservatives and a weak opposition that has failed to scrutinise adequately the first nine months of her premiership. The last time a prime minister went into an election campaign with anything approaching this position of strength was in 2001.
Then, Tony Blair used his election campaign to set out a detailed programme for the second term of his government. It fleshed out his vision for improving the country’s schools and hospitals and did not shy away from controversial policies such as increasing the role for private contractors. “This is not a manifesto for a quiet life,” he declared at the time.
This election presents May with a similar opportunity. The political landscape has been shifted immeasurably by Brexit and there are many unknowns about our new prime minister’s agenda and priorities. She could have embraced this chance to set out her vision for the country.
She could be launching difficult conversations with the public, for example, about the need to wean ourselves off our addiction to rising house prices to give young people a foot on the housing ladder or the need to raise taxes to ensure a decent level of care in older age. She could be committing herself to undertake some of the long-needed reforms to our taxation system. She could be much clearer about the likely trade-offs involved with Brexit.
May’s poll lead presents her with a choice. While she could choose to win this election by setting out her policies and inviting scrutiny and debate, she can also opt to win by default. She has clearly elected for the latter option. So far, she has played this campaign in the safest way imaginable. Jeremy Corbyn’s dismal personal ratings suggest that voters long ago dismissed his leadership capabilities. Despite this, her pitch is to tell the country not why she would make a great prime minister, but why he would be a terrible one.
Her appearances have been stage-managed to minimise her exposure to conversations with the public and searching questions from journalists. Unlike her predecessor, she has said she will not be taking part in any television debates. She is reportedly looking at publishing a short manifesto, light on specific pledges.
This means this campaign will provide barely any scrutiny of her agenda for government. She has pitched herself as the principled vicar’s daughter, on the side of ordinary working families, who can be trusted to act in the national interest. We are told that a vote for her is a vote to strengthen Britain’s negotiating hand with the European Union and, with traces of chilling authoritarianism, that any attempt by parliament to provide scrutiny of the deal she negotiates represents an attempt to thwart democracy. Beyond this, there is little of substance.
This leaves us to fill in the gaps from her track record. As home secretary, she cultivated a reputation for inflexibility. While an undeliverable immigration target was not her idea, she set out to deliver it at any cost. Her position that international students should be included in this target remains entrenched now she is in Number 10, despite its negative consequences.
While at the home office, she sanctioned a dog whistle-style campaign that saw vans emblazoned with posters telling illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest”. Three months into her premiership, her home secretary announced that companies would be forced to publish their numbers of foreign workers, a policy hastily retracted in the face of shocked opposition.
Since becoming prime minister, she has embraced the hard Brexit vision of her party’s Eurosceptic wing as enthusiastically as if it were her own. During this campaign, she is painting European transparency about a common negotiating position as an attempt to gang up on the UK; a foolhardy way to prepare for talks with our key allies.
Despite claiming to be on the side of ordinary working families, she is persisting with cuts to tax credits and benefits that will result in some low-income working families losing thousands of pounds a year by 2020. Schools and hospitals will see their budgets stretched ever more thinly over the next five years.
As a result of her own education experience, she is deeply committed to her signature policy – expanding the number of grammar schools – in the face of evidence that far from improving social mobility, as she claims, it would harm it. Beyond grammars, she has proved brittle in the face of opposition from business and the rightwing press: she rapidly dropped her policy of ensuring workers are represented on company boards. She has been unwilling to face down powerful corporate interests to take critical action to improve public health, for example, on child obesity and air pollution.
Why is she asking for our vote? The answer remains more elusive in respect to her than perhaps any other prime minister in living memory. But it is not an answer she has to give in order to win this election and she knows it. Barring a political earthquake, Theresa May’s lowest common denominator, risk-averse style of politics will deliver her a mandate. The question will remain: a mandate for what?