Theresa May has kicked off the Tory general election campaign with a remarkably punchy statement in Downing Street. She accused the European Commission of trying to interfere in the UK general election. She said that the hardening of the Commission’s negotiating stance and the leaks of recent days ‘had been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election that will take place on 8 June.’ She added that there were those in Brussels who did not want to see the UK prosper.
May’s charge takes us into new territory. I can’t recall a British Prime Minister accusing an allied power, let alone a group the UK is still a member of, of trying to interfere in our elections before. But it is an illustration of how furious the May team are about the Downing Street dinner leak; which was jaw-droppingly provocative from the Commission side.
But there is also political calculation here. Escalating the argument like this enables the Tories to emphasise that whoever wins the election will be carrying out these intensely tough negotiations, so do voters want May or Jeremy Corbyn doing it? The Tories believe that this is, ultimately, their strongest card in this election.
May’s punchy statement today will help her general election campaign. But it is not without risk. The danger is that this trading of barbs makes it impossible for talks to take place in an atmosphere that allows both sides to compromise.
In another sign of how the Tories want to turn this into a presidential-style contest, May talked about ‘my local candidates’—not Tory or Conservative candidates. She repeatedly said what a ‘vote for me’ would do. I suspect that we will see much more of this from her in the coming weeks.