Forget what you’ve been told about the Conservative leadership campaign. The Boris campaign’s weekend meltdown has not lost him the election. And Jeremy Hunt has not suddenly leapt into the lead. This is still Boris’s election to lose and the odds are that he will almost certainly triumph.
The reason is simple. Boris is following the tried-and-tested playbook of successful campaigns the world over. He is speaking plainly and to the right people. And he has a simple message that he repeats often, reassuring party members that he is the man to trust on the issue that they care about: Brexit.
In recent weeks, Boris’s campaign has changed dramatically. But this was a tactical shift and wasn’t a sudden panic. At the beginning of the leadership election, when thirteen MPs announced they were running – and ten got nominated – there were two obvious choices for MPs to make: speak to the national press to build a national profile, or talk to MPs.
Almost exclusively, Boris chose the latter, his electorate in that first round. His team released stories to the media as required but the focus was on a whipping operation that saw him romp home. After all, Boris had no real reason to spend precious time worrying about the media, he had the profile and experience to push on and talk to the people that mattered then.
Boris is doing the same thing now by speaking mostly to Tory party members. His announcement today – that prospective ministers will have to accept the chance of leaving with no deal if they want to serve in his cabinet – is just the latest example. This is a naked pitch to the base, that want a specific thing: for the Tories to get on with Brexit. This news will reassure them that Boris is the person to deliver this.
Throughout the campaign, his messages on Brexit have been crisp and clear: we will leave on the 31st October. This is a classic play of spin-doctor Lynton Crosby who’s said to be helping Team Boris. Say it short and sweet, say it again and again and again, and challenge your opponent to say it too.
Boris’s other announcements must also be understood as direct appeals to the party membership. His tax cuts for the middle classes are a play to this base. Distribution tables might ignite debate in Westminster but what unites both wings of members across the country is a tax cut of this type that upends years of more money flowing from taxpayers to the treasury. It shouldn’t come as a shock that Tories like keeping more of their own money.
But if Boris’s messaging has been strict and simple, can the same be said of Hunt’s?
It’s true that Hunt has done well to humanise himself online and his social media game looks to be superior to Boris’s. For a candidate accused of being boring, Hunt has also demonstrated an admirable sense of humour, selectively quote tweeting people gently mocking him, accepting being called ‘sassy’, and challenging Boris online to debates on TV.
The question for him though is whether his 178,000 followers on Twitter include enough Tory members to get him over the line. I suspect he thinks not, which is why he’s pushing for big set piece debates on mass TV media which boost his public profile.
Another problem for Hunt is that his responses on Brexit won’t really appeal to members. Hunt’s response on the issue of the day: a global Britain, following May’s deal and pushing it in parliament hoping for a different outcome, and accepting parliament taking no deal off the table, will be remembered too for all the wrong reasons.
It sounds nice, but it is complicated. Hunt is also not saying anything new to actually get the deal through. Members have had three years of hurt since the referendum and a lot of them voted for another party just a month ago. They don’t want prevarication, however well meaning.
For Boris, his biggest risk is relying on the single national issue when hustings are local. Expect Heathrow to be a battleground at the London hustings on July 17th. Here Hunt has an advantage, he came out in support of the project years ago. Boris’s flip-flop in recent weeks to support the project is welcome news for some but it undermines the clarity of his campaign. To make it work he’ll have to fall back on principle, his support for free markets and competition.
In Scotland, and in Wales too, members will want to know how Boris or Hunt will take the fight to nationalists keen to break up Britain. There it will be a battle between those that talk of Britain as a single nation, or of the UK as a family of four nations.
But these issues aside, Boris might well be right. Most members want to hear about a national message. At the moment, this almost exclusively means Brexit. It is the defining topic of the day and the existential threat to Tories, as well as a golden opportunity. And on this subject, Boris’s clear and simple message is key.