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Theresa May gives the impression that she is a seeking a blank cheque from voters. Photograph: Chris Radburn/AFP/Getty Images

How the opposition parties can still make a contest of this election

Election time and the fibbin’ is easy. The first fat and juicy one came from Theresa May when she stood outside Number 10 and declared that it was the “national interest” that compelled her to trigger the snap election that she had many times sworn that she would not call because an early poll was not in the “national interest”.

I don’t blame Mrs May for seeking to enlarge the slim parliamentary majority that she inherited from David Cameron. To complain about a prime minister taking her opportunity to strengthen her position is as futile as moaning about what bears get up to in the woods. I have often enough in this space advanced the reasons why, from her point of view, it made sense for the Tory leader to seek her own mandate. So I was less surprised by her gambit than most. I just wish she’d drop the bogus piety and the gossamer-thin pretence that her stonking lead in the opinion polls has had nothing to do with her calculations.

The first big and ripe one from Labour came at its opening campaign event, when the party’s leader was introduced with the words: “I give you Jeremy Corbyn, the next prime minister of the United Kingdom.” I doubt that even Mr Corbyn really believes that he will be moving into Number 10 on 9 June. I will contend in a moment that the fewer people who believe that, the better it will be for the opposition parties. Their best hope of limiting the size of a Tory victory will turn on convincing moderate voters that there is absolutely no possibility of prime minister Corbyn.

That ought not to be too difficult when the Opinium poll that we publish today indicates a Tory lead over Labour that is just shy of 20 points, while other recent polls have put the Conservatives ahead by even larger margins. For sure, the polls are likely to move about over the course of the next seven weeks. There will be fluctuations. There will be rogues. There will be campaign wobbles. And this will suit the Tories just fine. A member of the cabinet tells me that one of his party’s anxieties is suppressed turn-out among their supporters, some of whom might not bother to vote “because she is going win anyway”.

This points to one of the ironies of this election. The Conservatives will connive with Mr Corbyn to maintain a fiction that there is a serious possibility that they could lose and the Labour leader could win Number 10. The Tories will do so in order to agitate voters to turn up at the polling stations to cast a ballot for Mrs May. They are already spinning “analysis” that supposedly suggests that the race is much tighter than the polls suggest.

I will not be surprised if there is a period when Conservative commentators opine that Mr Corbyn is a much better campaigner than they had anticipated – they may even write that the Tories ought to be scared by him. Something like that happened in 2015, when previously unfriendly voices began to describe Ed Miliband as a strong performer and the Tory press concocted pieces describing the first 100 days of a Miliband government. A fat lot of good that did Labour when the votes were counted.

Mrs May has embarked on her campaign by trying to reprise the tactics that worked so well for her party two years ago. She has rehired Sir Lynton Crosby, the strategist who guided the Tories to victory in 2015 and the Australian has clearly instructed his latest client in the favourite lines from his playbook. Sir Lynton specialises in focusing a campaign on a small number of sharp messages to be hammered at the electorate until voters’ ears bleed. He will like Mrs May as an instrument because she is a reliably robotic regurgitator of simple slogans. Her signature theme at the start of the campaign was pure Crosby, when she defined this contest as a choice between her “strong leadership” and being governed by “a coalition of chaos” involving Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP.

The faithful echo chamber of the Tory press is framing the election in exactly the same way. You can see why. When voters are asked who is the better candidate for prime minister, the Tory leader is way out in front and the Labour leader does not even come second. He comes third behind Neither.

No opposition party in Britain has ever won an election when it is behind on both leadership and economic competence. Labour has mammoth deficits on each and such critical fundamentals will not shift in seven weeks, whatever anyone pretends. The Tories want the prime question on the ballot paper to be: who do you want to be prime minister? If this election boils down to that, then Mrs May will secure the smashing victory that she is looking for.

The challenge for the opposition parties is to take the Tories’ preferred question off the ballot paper and replace it with a different one. That question ought to be: do the Tories deserve the crushing majority that they are asking for?

The Lib Dems have been quick to twig this. In the interview with Tim Farron that we publish today, the Lib Dem leader swerves the Tory trap by ruling out being a participant in any sort of coalition after the election. He accepts that Mrs May will be the prime minister on 9 June. This liberates him to contend that the question at stake in this election is this: will Mrs May face effective opposition in the next parliament? Or will she amass such a huge majority that she can steamroller through whatever version of Brexit she comes up with and any domestic policy that her party wants to impose on Britain? Mrs May has given some unintentional encouragement to the Lib Dems by declaring that she is going to the country to create a Westminster that is “united” behind her on Brexit, as if the purpose of MPs is not to debate, but simply to nod through everything proposed by the prime minister. This impression that she is seeking a blank cheque from the voters and a rubber-stamp parliament is amplified by her refusal to engage with the other leaders in TV debates.

Electorates tend not to like it when they are taken for granted. Centrist voters may shiver at the thought of living in a country where some Tories talk about using a landslide majority to “exterminate” and “crush” the opposition. “We really have to watch that. That tone is completely wrong,” says one cabinet minister who believes that an imperious and arrogant Tory campaign will drive more moderate folk into the arms of the Lib Dems.

Mrs May’s ambitions to secure a smashing majority largely depend on how many seats she can harvest from Labour. The talk among Labour MPs is not about whether they will secure ministerial jobs in the Corbyn government; the debate among them is how low their party will go. Will Labour’s defeat be merely calamitous or utterly devastating? Will it be similar to the rout of 1983, when the party was reduced to 209 seats? Could it be more like 1935, when Labour scored just 154? I have even spoken to Labour MPs with fears that it could be worse than that.

In the spring of last year, more than 80% of them declared Mr Corbyn unfit to be their leader. This leaves them vulnerable to repeated torture at the hands of opponents and interviewers who will demand how they can recommend him to the country as prime minister. The best answer to that would be the honest one: they don’t. They have no expectation that Jeremy Corbyn is heading for Number 10. They urge a vote for Labour to support the party’s broad values, which remain popular with many voters, and to ensure that the opposition in the next parliament is large enough to place some constraints on the Tories.

Most Labour MPs are currently reluctant to say that into a microphone. It is easier for the Lib Dems to acknowledge that Mrs May is going to win when Mr Farron’s party starts with just nine MPs and the high end of Lib Dem ambitions is to raise their tally to above 40.

It is harder for Labour people to publicly acknowledge that they cannot win because it is not the done thing for the main opposition party to concede defeat in advance and it isn’t great for the morale of party activists as they go into the toughest election of their lifetimes. Away from national media, on the doorstep, it will be a different matter. Many Labour MPs tell me that this is precisely the message that they will be delivering to their electorates. Vote Labour not to get Corbyn, but to restrain the Tories.

Mrs May plans to centre this election on who should be prime minister, as you would if you were standing in her stilettoes. If the Tories prevail in framing the contest this way, they will almost certainly smash it. If this becomes an election about whether the Conservatives deserve to be given a greatly engorged majority, about whether they can be trusted with a landslide, then the campaign could be a lot more interesting.


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