OPINION - The faintly terrifying reason why the Tories called this election now

OPINION - The faintly terrifying reason why the Tories called this election now

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It was a remarkable admission. Over the weekend, an unnamed ally of the prime minister (which narrows it down somewhat) explained to the FT's George Parker why the Conservatives have gone to the polls now:

“For a long time people just weren’t listening to anything we said. By announcing the election, we are forcing people to engage in a conversation.

I've ruminated on this quote for days and am still struggling to come up with a suitable analogy. The best I could do is: 'For a long time, we were struggling to swim. So by jumping into the ocean from a great height, we are forcing the shark-infested waters to engage in a conversation.' But this still doesn't do justice to the magnificence of the original.

Now, it is certainly the case that most voters don't think much about politics outside of elections. And even this framing isn't quite right, because most people don't consider themselves to be 'voters' all. It's just not an overriding identity. This is, by the way, what makes flashbulb moments such as Partygate or the 'mini-Budget' so damaging.

The trouble for the Tories is that the plan, as set out by the anonymous ally, is working. The government is getting something of a hearing. It's just not going well. Let's skip over the national service policy, first because it's a distraction but mostly because Tom Hamilton, a director at Public First and former Labour staffer,  has written the definitive newsletter post on why it's a mad (and ultimately incoherent) policy.

Instead, let's look at everything that's happened since Wednesday afternoon. The prime minister gave an election address in the pouring rain while the Labour anthem Things Can Only Get Better blared into the street. He visited Belfast's Titanic Quarter, asked Welsh football fans if they were looking forward to the Euros (Wales did not qualify), while a Tory MP who is standing down endorsed Reform UK in her own seat. Oh, and the party also accidentally sent its own MPs a memo essentially blaming them for the chaotic start to the campaign.

Some things aren't especially important, let alone fair. Take the image of Sunak being photographed under an 'exit' sign on an aeroplane. Full disclosure: I think even prime ministers 20 points behind in the polls are entitled to well sign-posted emergency exits. But this doesn't hide the underlying problem.

Voters stopped listening to the Tories not simply because they were busy, but because many had seen enough. True, general election campaigns do provide an opportunity for parties to get a hearing. But this is more often said of opposition and minor parties, which benefit from greater exposure and due impartiality rules on broadcast.

The party of government is not supposed to require the oxygen of an election campaign and Ofcom regulations in order to get a hearing. Prime ministers are powerful people. They can cut taxes, deploy nuclear weapons and it turns out they even have the authority to make it illegal to go outside.

If voters were not listening before, it is not obvious what the magical properties of an election are that will change their minds now.

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