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Creative EU Referendum Theresa May

Theresa May leaves little to chance, and the Conservatives' general election PR strategy will be no exception

By Will Walden and Lucy Thomas, Edelman

April 18, 2017 | 7 min read

The writing (or lack of it) was, quite literally on the wall. When the podium appeared in Downing Street this morning it was missing the seal of the office of the Prime Minister. If political journalists needed a second source to back up their view that she was going to the country, they had it.

Theresa May snap election

Theresa May leaves little to chance, and the Conservatives' general election PR strategy will be no exception

This is after all a prime minister who leaves little to chance. She prepares fastidiously and consults narrowly. I’m told the party chairman didn’t even know. Don’t be surprised if the manifesto has already been drafted. The Tories have cash, lots of it. Oh, and ever so carefully and quietly they’ve been hiring or re-hiring agents and activists on the ground – just in case.

In 24 hours shouts of ‘u-turn’, and ‘craven political expediency’ will be forgotten. And yet No. 10 had vehemently denied there would be a snap election. Polls suggested if she’d waited until 2020 she’d still have beaten Jeremy Corbyn comfortably. So why now?

Because she has known for months that she would in all probability need a Brexit mandate of her own. First to strengthen her hand in negotiations, second to silence talk of a second Scottish independence referendum, and third and most importantly to be able to say with conviction to her party ‘the British people trust me to deliver Brexit’.

Look at it this way. If she’d pressed on and negotiations had faltered she could have faced potential defeat at the hands of her own Conservative Brexiteers ahead of the 2020 election. She might have had no choice but to crash out of the EU in order to survive politically.

This way if she wins on 8 June she has an unimpeachable mandate for Brexit until 2022. She won’t any longer be the unelected reluctant remainer, she will be a democratically elected Conservative PM with a healthy majority, in a stronger position at the head of her party, able to strike the deal she wants, and able to sell the deal she believes is in the best interests of this country.

And yet in her unofficial launch speech this morning we were treated to the mantra that will characterise the weeks ahead – Brexit may be the outcome - but this campaign will be all about stability v uncertainty.

The campaign nitty gritty: online and on the ground - how will she do it? And how will the other parties respond?

We’ve never really seen May the campaigner. In the recent by-election in Copeland she literally arrived, shook hands and left. And yet she’s putting herself front and centre.

Since assuming office we’ve seen a marked shift in communication style from No.10. No more 24/7 commentary; no more feeding the beast with a daily grid packed with stories. Instead, we’ve seen more self-produced content filmed internally and distributed to the media. And we’ve seen new slick videos showing the more human side of May, something unthinkable when she was home secretary.

Recent Conservative election victories – both in 2015 and 2010 - have been seen in large part as the work of a dream team of strategists: Lynton Crosby, Jim Messina, and the digital gurus Tom Edmonds and Craig Elder.

Their secret weapon in 2015 was to find and target the so-called “shy Tories”, producing thousands of versions of digital ads, tweaked to their audience, hammering home the message of stability v chaos. Crosby is a proven winner, Edmonds Elder a force in creativity, drive and cunning. Will 2017 see them together again?

For Labour, 2015 was also a digital election, which saw former Obama strategists – Matthew McGregor of Blue State Digital and David Axelrod – take leading roles. Labour were much keener than their Tory opponents to talk about what went on under the bonnet, with a lot of focus on their digital operation. With a recent exodus of senior staff from Jeremy Corbyn’s camp, it isn’t yet clear whether similar big hitters will be back.

The Lib Dem press office has been lauded across the media for its rapid reactions and witty asides, compared with the more lumbering and lacklustre Labour effort. Given they will be targeting a younger, more Remain, more digitally savvy audience, if they can replicate the online smarts throughout the campaign, they could leverage that online engagement.

The trick is turning clicktivism into real-life activism and actual votes. Having won the Richmond by-election as a mini Brexit referendum, many will see that as the blueprint to follow. And with membership at an all-time high of almost 90,0000 (1000 joined in the first hour after the election was called) they have a stronger ground game than ever before.

Her v him

May though is casting herself as the unifier, the grown up, the anti-Westminster warrior capable of taking the big decisions, whilst Labour squabbles over the scraps.

Already it is clear she wants this election to be about her v him. Every warning will be about the danger of Corbyn, cast as the weak and malleable puppet at the head of a coalition government effectively run by the chief puppeteer Nicola Sturgeon.

And what of UKIP? Erm, who? A Conservative victory on 8June will effectively lay UKIP to rest.

That May chose to single out the Lib Dems for a tongue lashing – a party with just a handful of MPs – reflects the one big change post-referendum, and the Tories quiet fear. There is a very real risk that blue seats in London and across the South-West taken from the Lib Dems in 2015 will return to them on 8 June.

Tim Farron may lack Nick Clegg’s 2010 charisma but he heads the only genuinely UK wide overtly pro-EU political party. Given Labour’s public angst over Brexit, that’s important because it means Farron’s Lib Dems represent the best available option for moderate remainers to coalesce around a centrist movement.

Now add to that equation say the immediate dumping of Corbyn and, so the narrative goes, victory for Macron in France and a coalition movement here led by a charismatic moderate centrist Labour leader could just possibly upset the odds.

Nah, ok, probably not. After all this is a PM who doesn’t take chances. But then, remember 2016...

Will Walden is managing director, public affairs at Edelman UK. A former political journalist with ITN and the BBC he was Boris Johnson’s communications director for five years.

Lucy Thomas is head of Brexit advice at Edelman UK. A former BBC Brussels producer, she was deputy director of the Stronger In Campaign.

Creative EU Referendum Theresa May

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