The first official week of the Conservatives’ election campaign did not go as many inside CCHQ had hoped. A cabinet minister resigned, a row erupted over insensitive Tory comments on the Grenfell fire and a candidate stepped down over previous comments on rape. Despite this, the Conservatives end the week with a sense of cautious optimism about the next month. Tory MPs believe that Johnson steadied the ship on Wednesday evening with the party’s official launch event in the Midlands. ‘That calmed nerves,’ says a member of government. ‘Boris on form cheers up activists and candidates.’
The Tories continue to hold a comfortable lead in the polls – and with parliament dissolved, they can now focus their efforts entirely on campaigning. Key players assembled at Conservative Campaign Headquarters in Westminster on Wednesday after parliament had dissolved. At the centre of the room lies the election pod. Top of the food chain is the campaign director Isaac Levido – who cut his teeth under former Tory election strategist Lynton Crosby. Levido serves as head of the campaign – with No. 10 senior aide Dominic Cummings telling staff last week that Levido was ‘100 times better’ than him at running campaigns. Levido sits in the centre of the office on what is know as the pod.
Back in 2015, the central hub was known by staffers as the ‘god pod’ given that it had a select number of key players on it including Lynton Crosby and Giles Kenningham. The 2019 pod is slightly expanded. Those on the top desk alongside Levido include CCHQ director of comms Caroline Preston, Ben Mascall, No. 10 director of comms Lee Cain and the social media duo Sean Topham and Ben Guerin from New Zealand. The key campaign players gather each day at 5.45am for a meeting. Alongside the main comms operation there is a rebuttal unit focussed on rapid response. Staffers tend to work two shifts – 6am – 6pm or 8.30am -10.30pm. They are given one day off at the weekend.
On the ground, reports from Conservative MPs across the England and Wales suggest that the party’s hopes for a Brexit-based election are on track. ‘It’s 97 per cent Brexit,’ reports a candidate campaigning in a heavy Leave seat in the Midlands. ‘There is such a strong resolute feeling that people are still committed to the UK getting out’. However, what has come as a pleasant surprise to this candidate and others is that so far there has been little bite back on the failure to leave the EU on 31st October as Johnson had previously promised. ‘That’s probably the most surprising thing – but it’s early days,’ says a candidate who doesn’t want to get carried away. ‘Most people seem to have given Boris the benefit of the doubt for now,’ agrees a candidate in the south. In Scotland, Tory candidates feel they have benefitted from the SNP’s focus on a second independence referendum – allowing them to work to unite the unionist vote.
However, there is one area which Tory MPs worry could become a weak spot as the campaign goes on: the economy. Both Sajid Javid and John McDonnell gave speeches this week on their party’s fiscal plans. Both pledged higher borrowing – with Javid opting for an extra £22bn a year and McDonnell an extra £55 billion a year. Despite the differences in sum, they are both being written up as big spenders. ‘It does make it harder for us to criticise Labour,’ says an MP out on the campaign trail. ‘We don’t want this to become an arms race for spending where people choose the bigger sums’. Next week, the Tories will try and build momentum by moving the conversation to crime, immigration and the NHS.