‘Strong and stable leadership.’ When the Tory high counsels decided on the snap election, they also settled the narrative.
And so the programming got under way. The Prime Minister cannot help saying it, nor can any Cabinet minister in any studio during any interview. And there are matching placards, loyally waved behind Mrs May’s head at every stage-managed appearance.
Got the message?
The choice of narrative was obvious. And a good political message is one which chimes with what most voters are thinking already.
Corbyn’s leadership ratings are dire, whatever measure you take. Mrs May is streets ahead on questions such as who makes the best PM, who should manage the economy, and who should lead Brexit negotiations. On those contests, it’s all over already. The narrative just reiterates the point.
And yet. Is it already getting a bit embarrassing? Interviewers are already pushing back, pleading with their interviewees not to keep repeating the phrase (thereby repeating it) and even the braver audience members on TV question programmes are calling out Conservative panel members for repeating the phrase over and over again.
Could it become counter-productive?
As a candidate in Tony Blair’s ’97 ’01 and ’05 elections, I was on the receiving end of this process. Here was the script. Stick to it. Never vary from it. The response to protests that I was not a programmable machine, was that when I was heartily sick of hearing myself utter the script, that would be the point at which voters were just beginning to hear it.
I was sceptical – until I started hearing our lines repeated back to me, voluntarily, by voters on the doorsteps.
But that started 20 years ago. It would be dangerous to assume that a play that clearly worked well all that while back will work just as well now. Several things have changed. Firstly, voters are now far more cynical about politics and political messaging. Secondly, the outlets for the message are vastly more numerous now than two decades ago – so overkill can set in more readily.
The question is how committed is the Conservative machine to the narrative. Print orders for all the billboards and posters are probably in by now. The broad narrative for the manifesto is also set now. If the agreed narrative is ‘strong and stable leadership’ then we are a long way from moving on!
But there are dangers to sticking with it.
Although the majority of voters, according to polls, agree with the point, they could increasingly respond by saying, yes, we know that, but what about the NHS, what about long term care, what about my local school’s budget?
Voters can move the electoral agenda.
Commentators urge policy pronouncements on the Prime Minister. At the moment, she is largely resisting. That’s understandable. Mr Corbyn announces a policy a day. And the result is hardly any voter can remember them (though they may now remember the 10,000 additional police officers pledge for the wrong reasons). Too many messages. Too specific. Labour still hasn’t hit on an overall narrative that has any traction.
So the answer to a worn out narrative, that increasingly embarrasses those who utter it, and increasingly annoys the voters, is not to switch to a great slew of detailed policies. The answer is to move to your next, one, simple, narrative. Having secured the first one.
With 40 days still to go, I would expect ‘strong and stable leadership’ to be wound back, even if it is already committed to print for millions of leaflets yet to hit the mat, and millions of messages yet to land on our personal computers.
In the interests of maintaining voter engagement, there will need to be at least a second narrative, to run alongside the leadership point.
Mrs May could reprise her initial Downing Street pitch, and round up her election bid with a narrative focussed on those who are just getting by.
Instead of those just getting bored.