UK election: how the Tories ‘got it done’
The UK election was won on a Tuesday evening in September in the back room of a drab hotel in Bury.
The Conservatives were conducting one of their regular focus groups with voters in the northern English town. Aware that an election was around the corner, party strategists knew that Boris Johnson needed a simple slogan to explain his core policy of delivering Brexit.
In the end, the key phrase materialised from a conversation among half a dozen people in the hotel. “Voters were chatting about Brexit and there was a [group] of about four to five people who started talking about ‘getting it done’,” one strategist in the room recalls.
“That was all they wanted: to get Brexit out of the way, out of their lives. ‘Get Brexit Done’ emerged from that meeting. It was trailed at the party conference and went on to define the campaign.”
That three-word slogan — a sequel to the Vote Leave campaign’s pledge to “Take Back Control” in the 2016 referendum — proved to be one of the most potent political messages of modern times. With mind-numbing repetition from the prime minister, ministers and hundreds of Tory candidates across the country, it helped hand the party its biggest victory in three decades and delivered Mr Johnson a “stonking” mandate to reshape the nation.
The extent of the campaign’s success is reflected in the widespread perception that Mr Johnson is now the head of a brand new government, rather than the leader of a party which has been in power for nine years and whose austerity policies were loathed in precisely the same areas of the country where the Tory party triumphed on December 12.
The Conservative victory mirrored the approach behind the slogan: careful planning and brutal discipline, driven by what voters told them. Whereas the party’s previous campaign two years ago cost former prime minister Theresa May her majority and veered from mishap to disaster, Mr Johnson’s team based their message and tactics on the data-driven Vote Leave referendum campaign.
It may be a truism of both war and elections that the victors get to write the history, but for the team behind the Conservative campaign, the key moment was when they were able to define the political debate in a simple message about Brexit.
“We had essentially won before the campaign began,” says one insider. Or as James Cleverly, the party chairman, argues, the Tories succeeded where Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour party leader, failed because of the conversations it held in Labour’s traditional heartlands, including towns such as Bury in Greater Manchester. “Labour lost because they had given up listening to people.”
Mr Johnson won the election with an effective message, but good campaigning does not always lead to good government. Vote Leave won the 2016 referendum but almost lost the battle to deliver it. Now the prime minister faces the challenge of turning his key message into reality, including complex and difficult trade talks with the EU.
Although the Conservatives attempted to channel the energy and skills of the Vote Leave campaign, the team was not actually led by Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s most influential adviser and the architect of the “Take Back Control” message. Instead, the leading figure was Isaac Levido: a 36-year-old protégé of veteran Tory electioneer Lynton Crosby, who played a key role in Scott Morrison’s surprise victory in this year’s Australian federal elections.
Mr Levido was hired at a meeting in the Marylebone branch of Patisserie Valerie in August, having been approached by Mr Cummings the day Mr Johnson entered Downing Street. He agreed with one proviso. “Isaac told Dom he would do it only if he had complete control. Dom agreed and completely stepped back,” says one friend of the pair.
At the heart of the Tory war room with Mr Levido sat his long-time work partner Michael Brooks, who supervised focus groups and polling. He ran nightly surveys, held continuous meetings with voters to test messages and the mood. “Brooksy and Isaac worked seamlessly, they were the core of the campaign,” according to one official.
Lee Cain, who has worked with Mr Johnson since the referendum, moved across from Downing Street to lead the media operation. Along with Paul Stephenson, another veteran of the Vote Leave campaign, the party’s media operation was focused on broadcast outlets and rapid rebuttal. One official summed up their approach: “It was Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, that focus was drilled into us. Isaac brought calm leadership, Lee and Paul brought the fighting Vote Leave spirit of 2016 into 2019.”
As the nascent campaign geared up, the Conservative party was in crisis, having spent three years failing to get Brexit done, with parliament voting down the withdrawal agreement multiple times. Nigel Farage’s Brexit party emerged to beat the Tories in the May European elections — creating a schism in the Leave vote. Meanwhile, the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats surged and almost doubled their share of the vote. The country’s oldest political party turned to Mr Johnson as their hope for salvation.
From his initial days in Downing Street in late July, Mr Johnson focused on trying to reunite the Brexit vote. But the prime minister was elected to the leadership of his party on a platform of leaving the EU on October 31 “come what may, do or die”. He ended up breaking that pledge as opposition MPs passed legislation to force another delay.
While ministers were concerned that the party’s reputation would suffer, the campaign team worked to “inoculate” the prime minister from the fallout. Mr Johnson acted ruthlessly, sacking 21 MPs from his party, including former chancellors Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond, and used the term “Surrender Act” to describe the legislation passed by MPs to delay Brexit until January 31. He was criticised in Westminster, but Downing Street officials said it was necessary for the election campaign.
“Boris had to be seen to do everything to get Brexit through. When the October 31 cliff-edge arrived, it had to be very clear to voters that he had done everything humanly possible, almost bar going to prison, to get us out of the EU.”
Several officials said one “absolutely crucial” moment came in mid-October, when Mr Johnson reworked Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement, replacing the contentious “backstop” insurance policy with special arrangements for Northern Ireland. The new deal won back defectors to the other parties.
“Once Boris had the deal, it meant the Lib Dems could trust us not to wreck the economy and the Brexit party supporters knew we were serious about leaving the EU,” says one senior Conservative.
When parliament dissolved on October 31, the campaign slogans and strategy were tested and proven to connect with voters: “get Brexit done”, end the parliamentary chaos and allow for extra cash into the police and health service. “Don’t underestimate how much was done before the election was called,” says one insider.
For all the sound and fury of a five-week election campaign, little changed in the race as Conservatives hammered out their core message and Labour attempted to make up ground with its radical policy platform. The Tories began roughly where they ended: 10 points ahead of Labour and more trusted on leadership and the economy — the two crucial ratings Mr Brooks tracked diligently.
For the Conservative strategists, the secret weapon, apart from their Brexit slogan, turned out to be Mr Corbyn: the opposition leader entered the 2019 campaign as the most unpopular party leader since polling began.
“No matter where you went, everyone hated Corbyn. Every fellow candidate told me time after time he was loathed on the doorstep, especially in those northern and midlands seats,” says one senior Tory MP. “Brexit was important but his personality above all was what won it for us.”
Although tactics and the figurehead were different from the disastrous 2017 election, the strategy was strikingly similar to Mrs May’s failed campaign. Will Tanner, director of the centre right think-tank Onward who helped write the party’s 2019 manifesto, argues that she laid the foundations for Mr Johnson’s victory with a shift to the politics of “belonging”.
“The truth is that working-class voters in the north and Midlands have been moving towards the Conservatives for several years, carried by a growing desire for security and pride in their place that an increasingly metropolitan Labour party has neglected. The prime minister’s victory is a vindication for those who foresaw that shift,” he says.
The Conservative manifesto emphasised the same themes. Focused again on Brexit, it included a scattering of straightforward policies to speak to those Labour voters.
“The message wasn’t just to get Brexit done, but get it done so that the government could start addressing their very real concerns about public services, cost of living and the streets and communities around them,” says Robert Colville, director of the Centre for Policy studies think-tank, who helped write the manifesto. Launched in the marginal seat of Telford in the Midlands, it avoided new controversy. “It also sunk without trace, which is exactly what we wanted,” says one insider.
The only moment during the campaign when Conservative HQ questioned victory came in the days after Labour’s manifesto was released. “For the first time, it appeared as if their vision of change was more compelling than ours,” says one strategist. The polling and focus groups by Mr Brooks pointed to an uptick towards Labour, with the Conservative lead shrinking in some seats to as low as four points.
The Tories responded with a press conference with the core Vote Leave campaign team: Mr Johnson, cabinet office minister Michael Gove and former Labour minister Gisela Stuart. The message was obvious: voters of all persuasion who want to deliver on the referendum should back the Conservatives. “That helped put it back on our terms,” says one minister.
Yet the event which did the most to stall Labour’s momentum was out of the control of both parties. At lunchtime on November 29, Usman Khan stabbed two attendees at a conference on offenders’ rehabilitation at the Fishmongers’ Hall in the City of London. Khan was tackled by members of the public, before being shot dead by police.
The campaign paused for 24 hours, but the terror attack effectively paused politics for almost a week. “If you didn’t read the newspaper, the election stopped for six days. When it started up again, the conversation had changed entirely. The focus was on security and policing, a line had been drawn under the manifestos,” says one official.
While the Tories’ ground operation of 191,000 activists struggled to compete with Labour’s half a million troops, its digital operation was more ambitious. Conservative HQ hired two young New Zealanders to improve its stale output. Sean Topham, 28, and Ben Guerin, 24, worked closely with Mr Levido to create a strategy focused on the campaign’s final days.
They created a 10-strong team with an unconventional approach to digital campaigning, mixing cheaply-produced memes with videos rooted in popular culture. A Love Actually parody went viral, as did a party political broadcast riffing off Vogue magazine’s 73 questions to celebrities.
“When you’re saying the same thing like water dripping on a stone, you have to find fresh ways of looking at it,” says Mr Guerin.
Yet mis-steps were made. Insiders acknowledge that the doctoring of a video of Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit spokesman, to make him appear unable to answer a question on party policy, was an unnecessary distraction — although it received 3m hits and furthered the party’s message.
When floods broke out in northern England, Mr Johnson was videoed ineffectively pushing dirty water around with a mop creating the sense that he was not on top of the matter. But, says one veteran activist: “we responded fast enough to react and tackle these issues”.
Now with an 80-seat majority, Mr Johnson has five years to fulfil his campaign pledges — and, most of all, deliver Brexit. With the word now reportedly banned for use by government officials, it is clear he wants to move on. But like the 2016 referendum, it was a simple three-word slogan that won the campaign.
Mr Cleverly, the Tory party chairman, says “the clear, unambiguous mission” set out by the Johnson camp was a key factor in success. “No one was left in any doubt about his determination or ability to get Brexit done.”
Photographs by Andrew Parsons/i-Images