Elections can often be dramatic and unpredictable events. But they are often soul destroying and boring as well. The UK’s 2015 one was just dispiriting. The referendum on the EU was not much fun either. And when Theresa May called her snap election in 2017 it looked like it would simply be the worse possible example of the genre. Like most people I was pretty much exhausted of political debate. What more was there to say on the subject? And to add to the tedium it didn’t even look like much of a contest. The Tories had been well ahead in the polls and the only question was whether they were going to get a big majority or a record breaking one.
In fact, there was one projection that suggested a majority of 200 in a parliament with less than 700 seats in total was possible.
So basically, we knew what they were going to say and we knew who was going to win. It was pretty much the definition of boring. And yet somehow as the campaign progressed it became steadily more and more compelling. The Labour Party, which had been in total chaos since the 2015 election suddenly started looking like a proper political party. It had policies, leaflets and everything. It was almost as if they were serious about winining. Nothing they had done up to that point had remotely prepared me for that, so that was surprising.
But there was also the personality of their leader. Jeremy Corbyn was somehow very engaging. He concentrated mainly on what he does best. He travelled the country giving talks to crowds and meeting people. I started off thinking that it looks old fashioned, and that it might be the last time anyone would trouble to do so. But it seemed to work in a funny sort of way. A well dressed, well rehearsed person in a television ought to be a much more effective way of getting a message out to a large number of people. But there was something about the footage of crowds of people listening to him that struck a chord.
Nonetheless the polls and the coverage remained bleak for Labour. Even though there were people cheering them on on social media, it still looked like a hopeless case. Every opinion poll still showed them a long way behind. I had to decide who I was going to vote for. I sometimes struggle to decide but this time the decision seemed pretty straight forward. This was the Brexit election. I was against Brexit. The party that was most against Brexit was the Liberal Democrats. As it happened I live in one of the safest Conservative seats in the country and there was no prospect of unseating him. But the party that he would see looking over his shoulder, albeit distantly, was the Lib Dems. So a vote for them was the obvious and logical choice. Job done, let’s get on with other things.
There was an unusual feature of the 2017 general election. National and local politics had got out of sync and there was a round of local elections in some parts of the country early in the campaign. As expected, Labour were trounced and did particularly badly in parts of the country that usually support them. I was not surprised, but I did find myself more disappointed than I expected to.
Once the locals were out of the way the campaign started to take on a more familiar pattern. Labour’s manifesto was leaked ahead of time. This had the effect of reminding me of what a mess the organisation was in, and gave the press the chance to start ripping it to shreds. This again was normal. I thought the actual proposals sounded quite good, but they were covered as if they were completely insane.
But to my surprise the Labour Party’s poll numbers didn’t fall. If anything they went up. It wasn’t much. It didn’t really change my opinion that Labour were heading for one heck of a pasting. But it did feel good to see them doing a bit better than expected. And thanks to something as old fashioned as launching a manifesto as well. It felt almost wholesome.
Then there was a terrorist attack in Manchester. Security issues usually help the Conservatives, who are supposed to be the party of law and order. But this time most of the discussion was around the way police numbers have been cut. If anything it helped Labour. This was really surprising. It was repeated a couple of weeks later when there was another attack.
But even though Labour was beginning to do a bit better than expected, it still felt much like the Tories were coasting to an easy victory. They weren’t having it all their own way. In distinct contrast to Labour, their manifesto launch was not a great success. There was an initiative to recoup some of the costs of late life care from people’s property wealth. This went down really badly though to be honest I never really understood either the original policy nor the new version rapidly brought in when the original was found to be so toxic as to be repelling a lot of core voters. If there is anything worse than a bad policy it is a u-turn form a bad policy.
And all along Jeremy Corbyn continued to draw larger and larger crowds getting more and more vocal in their support. The chant of “oh Jérémy Corbyn’ was turning up everywhere. It might have been trailing in the polls but Labour just looked great on the telly. The image that struck me was a couple of days before the poll at a big rally somewhere like Newcastle. Corbyn was speaking with a huge colourful rainbow- the kind where the whole arc is clearly visible – framing the podium around which a huge crowd dutifully listened. I knew he couldn’t win. I knew that in all likelihood he was going to lose badly. But I just wanted to hug him regardless. Most of the polls, apart from a couple of rogue ones that nobody was taking seriously, indicated a comfortable win for Theresa May. I reasoned to myself that simply staying in contention was enough. As long as Labour looked like they might win next time, they could still function as an opposition. Not all would be lost. So at the last minute I dropped my tactical plan to vote Lib Dem and voted Labour instead. It felt good. Quixotic. But good.
I usually stay up through the night on election night. But this time I thought I’d rather sleep it out and wake up after all the misery was over.
I just decided to listen to the exit poll. I nearly didn’t even do this. The exit poll last time had overestimated Labour’s share of the seats quite a bit. I didn’t want to go to bed with bad news only to wake up to worse. Had I been in bed I would have missed one of the most astonishing announcements in British electoral history. The Conservatives didn’t win enough seats for a comfortable majority. They lost seats. They failed to win the election outright.
It was a shocking moment and will continue to have a dramatic effect on British politics for years to come.
Betting the House gives us the background to these events, and in keeping with the speed at which the author has produced it is somewhat breathless in tone.
In fact it is obvious in places that it is based on contemporaneous notes rapidly edited. The same events are sometimes introduced twice as if for the first time. There is the odd sentence where words are missed out. But this doesn’t really harm the book much. It remains a stomping good yarn throughout.
The book is more focused on the Conservatives, but does have some interesting revelations from the Labour side. The role of the Momentum group had been largely ignored by the media and wasn’t something those of us outside politics would have any way of knowing about. But it turns out they had been very busy actively campaigning and had been very effective. Unlike nearly all the other players – including others in their party – they had an inkling that things weren’t going nearly as badly for Labour as everyone else supposed. In fact, one suggests that they thought that had the campaign gone on another couple of weeks Labour could well have actually won a majority. It wouldn’t have taken many more votes for this to be true.
But the focus is naturally enough on the Conservative side. This was Mrs May’s big gamble, and the central theme of the book is charting how it unravelled. The thing I found most interesting was just how much power the Prime Minister has to set the agenda. Mayism was born from a couple of her advisers who chose to take their party in a direction and onto a territory it had never been before. The Conservatives were to become the workers’ party. They were even going to be given seats on the boards of companies. Grammar schools would come back to give the brighter working class children the opportunity to get up the ladder. The free market was rejected, as was untrammelled individualism.
This is not Ted Heath as the managing director of UK PLC. It isn’t Margeret Thatcher letting the animal spirits of entrepreneur’s loose. And it certainly isn’t Cameron/Blairism where everything was played with an eye to the next photo opportunity and how it will look on the news bulletins. We learn from this account that the author of the manifesto spent the first half of the campaign locked away in a quiet room drafting it.
So basically a handful of people were able to sketch out a new direction for the country with precious little input from elected Conservative MPs and next to no discussion in the party. It would be easy to deplore this, but in a way it is quite encouraging. Our system sort of works, but like all forms of government it tends to get stuck in a rut from time to time. That our leaders have the capacity to think deeply and radically and change course when the situation demands it is something I’d regard as a bug that you don’t really want to fix.
But while new ideas and radical thinking are sometimes required, being new and radical is not in itself enough to make sure they are good ideas. The other surprising thing about the Conservative manifesto was just how rubbish it was. There might have been some great vision behind it, but what came out was a load of junk.
The 2017 election campaign had some remarkable features. I can’t think of another one where the governing party were so far ahead in the polls at the start of the campaign. And indeed this carried over to a very respectable total vote on the day itself. But the record breaking performance belonged to Labour who got the biggest swing to any party since 1945. Everyone involved knew they were taking part in history when the results came out. This book captures the moment and I suspect that whatever else happens, it will be read for many years to come. I strongly advise the publishers not to correct the minor editing errors in future editions. They are part of the history of the time.