‘Weak and wobbly’ to ‘get Brexit done’: 2019 and Conservative campaigns

Dr Anthony Ridge-Newman

Senior lecturer at Liverpool Hope University. His research and teaching were previously based at the universities of Glasgow, London, Roehampton and Oxford. Anthony co-convenes the PSA Conservatism Studies Group. He has published three books: ‘Reporting the Road to Brexit’ (2018); ‘Tories and Television, 1951-1964’ (2016); and ‘Cameron’s Conservatives and the Internet’ (2014).  

Email: anthony.ridgenewman@gmail.com

Section 4: Parties and the Campaign

The scale of the largely unexpected 2019 Conservative ‘landslide’, begs the question: what did the Conservatives do in 2019 that they did not do during the 2017 General Election? This short analysis aims to address this by comparing aspects of the Conservative Party’s campaign approaches in the 2019 with earlier general elections. My analysis of the 2017 Conservative campaign is used as the basis for comparing key campaign factors, including leadership; slogans and branding; strategy; and digital campaigning.

Leadership: In 2019, Johnson exhibited brutally uncompromising leadership in standing firm on removing the Conservative whip from several Tory grandees who had rebelled against the government over Brexit. This demonstration of unflinching power established a standard for party discipline that ultimately fed into a display of party unity in the Conservatives’ 2019 campaign.

Theresa May, who was largely untested in highly visible national campaigns, began the 2017 election campaign being portrayed as a similarly strong presidential figure. However, mid-campaign, following a number of significant campaign blunders and policy u-turns, the party strategy shifted away from a focus on May as leader to emphasising the strengths of the Conservative Party more generally.

This shift away from the presidential model of campaigning was less observable in 2019. Boris Johnson, while not being completely immune from occasional campaign setbacks (e.g. criticism over the state of the NHS and his response to the London Bridge attack) remained unequivocally front and centre in the Tories’ national campaign. Brand ‘Boris’ became the central presidential focus, akin to the party’s strategies that centred on brand Cameron in 2010 and 2015.

Slogans and branding: The focus on Theresa May’s leadership early in the 2017 campaign was largely aimed at branding her as a second ‘Iron Lady’, a Thatcher-like, figure, through incessantly repeating the slogan ‘Strong and Stable Leadership’. However, public discourse soon flipped the slogan on its head to frame May’s seemingly shaky campaign as ‘weak and wobbly’.

In contrast, the Conservatives’ ‘get Brexit done’ slogan of 2019, in the context of the largely single issue ‘Brexit election’, is, quite possibly, the smartest campaign move the Conservatives have ever taken. Like Donald Trump’s 2016 ‘Make America Great Again’, the phrase resonated significantly with frustrated voters in the Brexit context and soon became a common lexicon frequently appearing in media, political and public discourses. The Conservatives integrated the slogan with the gimmicky ‘memeification’ of political broadcasts, including a ‘Love Actually’ parody, starring Johnson as the Hugh Grant character; and a TV stunt using a ‘get Brexit done’ JCB.

Strategy: In 2017, Theresa May took a narrow inner-circle approach to using close advisers for the development and implementation of the Conservative campaign strategy. However, May’s choices came under significant internal criticism and the strategy was judged to be out of touch with the electorate.

The Conservatives’ 2019 strategy has been widely attributed to Vote Leave’s former campaign director Dominic Cummings and Isaac Levido, a digital strategist connected with the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s campaigns.

The Conservatives’ digital strategy was reported on Channel 4 News, 4 December 2019, and in the Sunday Telegraph, 15 December 2019, to have used negative scare campaign techniques, in the form of Facebook and Instagram attack-ads targeted at specific groups of voters in target seats and pro-Leave areas. The ads are reported to have warned of the supposed impact of Labour’s policies on the cost of living and potential tax hikes. The Tories are also reported to have invested tens of thousands of pounds in targeted online videos, especially in the latter stages of the campaign.This investment in an integrated, coordinated and targeted online strategy seems to have taken a significantly more sophisticated approach when compared to 2017.

Digital campaigning: Ridge-Newman (2014) suggests that Johnson’s 2008 Mayoral campaign was one of the early examples of Facebook innovation; and digital campaigning grew significantly and organically at the grassroots of the Conservative Party during the leadership of David Cameron. However, under Theresa May, the party struggled to compete with the extent of Momentum’s collective digital engagement, which gave energy to Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 Labour Party campaign.

Where digital innovation took a nosedive under May, early in the long-campaign Johnson reignited the Tories’ approach to digital politics in circumventing classic media by using Facebook to announce government policy. The Conservatives also successfully integrated their digital strategy with offline activities and competed more equally with Momentum on Twitter. The Tory Twitter strategy was bold and aggressive, but, at times, highly criticised, especially when a CCHQ Twitter handle was amended to appear as a fact-checking service.

As per 2017, Labour demonstrated significant online mobilisation through extensive and coordinated grassroots activity on Twitter. It led many journalists and commentators to mistakenly link Twitter trends to the wider public mood, which could be one of the key factors contributing to the collective surprise at the extent of the Conservatives’ 2019 election win.