Try to put yourself in the mind of an undecided voter. Perhaps you are an undecided voter, but the chances are, if you are reading this article, that you are undecided because you take a close interest in politics and you know a lot about why you shouldn’t vote for any of the available candidates.
If so, try to put yourself in the mind of a floating voter who doesn’t pay much attention to politics. Each week, Michael Ashcroft’s opinion polls ask: “What incidents, events, stories etc have you noticed from the election campaign in the last few days?” The most common answer every week is: “None.”
Despite a pleading supplementary, “Please be as specific as you can,” even those respondents who do give an answer mostly manage general impressions such as, “spending promises”, “Brexit”, “lies”, “leaders debates” or “manifestos”. In the past three weeks, the only specific policy that was noticed by more than one in 10 people was “free broadband or BT”, mentioned by 12 per cent in week two.
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That was an early success of the Labour campaign, although the policy itself is not as popular as the party’s offering at the last election. And it seems unlikely that many people will decide how to vote purely because of free broadband – either because they want it, or because they don’t want to pay for it for other people.
Elections tend to be decided by general impressions painted with broad brushes. For most undecided voters, this election is probably about four interrelated things: Brexit, the economy, public services and the character of the leaders.
So let us ignore the opinion polls on voting intention for a moment, and consider how floating voters are likely to make their choice this time. I think on all four points, they are more likely to opt for the Conservatives than they were last time.
Brexit is more urgent this time – at the last election Theresa May had only just started negotiations and the deadline for departure was still nearly two years away. The economy is more favourable to the government this time – real earnings are rising instead of falling. Labour’s spending plans are more extravagant this time, while the Tories are promising to end austerity with more modest spending increases – and have avoided proposing anything as unpopular as the dementia tax.
Finally, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are known quantities at this election – both unpopular, but with a clear differential in the prime minister’s favour, which is not yet closing as dramatically as it did in 2017, when Corbyn and May ended up about level on polling day.
Then there are unexpected events. In the last election, Corbyn was able to cite terrorist attacks to make the case against police cuts. This time, Johnson has pre-empted that by making 20,000 more police officers his first pledge.
Maybe something else will come up, but as we approach the final few days of this campaign, I feel that the Johnson team is better prepared and more sure of what it is doing than the opposition.
In 2017, the Labour team was small, united, had nothing to lose and decided simply to argue, to a large extent, for what it believed. The result was a tightly written manifesto and a leader who came across as confident and relaxed.
On the Tory side, the campaign was a disaster, with no one in charge, contradictory messages – “change” versus “strong and stable” – and a leader who hid from the voters, from journalists and from other politicians.
After the election, the full extent of the chaos within the Tory campaign was revealed in several books. Lynton Crosby, the Australian consultant, had advised against holding an election and much of his advice on how to fight it was ignored.
Tom McTague, one of the authors of Betting the House, has pointed out how the Johnson campaign, run by Crosby’s protege Isaac Levido, is closely following Crosby’s plan for 2017: “Be clear why this election is needed. Frame it as a choice between stability and uncertainty … [And] take every opportunity to contrast with Corbyn.”
We will have to wait for the books to know what is going on behind the scenes this time, but the sense I get is that the Tory campaign is disciplined, far from complacent, but clear about what it has to do to win.
As for the Labour campaign, the noise of smashing crockery can almost be heard coming from within. The signs of disunity were there even before Andrew Fisher, co-author of the 2017 manifesto, handed in his notice in September. Corbyn and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, have looked uncomfortable in interviews.
And there was a hint of panic in the promise to borrow an extra £58bn to compensate women for raising the state pension age, which wasn’t in the “carefully costed” manifesto launched two days earlier.
I may be reading too much into this. The atmosphere inside Tony Blair’s successful election campaigns was never less than poisonous, but I think his team always knew what it was trying to do, and the fundamentals were always in his favour.
This time, with undecided voters, I think the fundamentals favour Boris Johnson.