The Big CON? How Theresa and ‘her team’ failed to mobilise the media of the age

Llewella Chapman, University of East Anglia

13 June 2017


How was it that Theresa May and ‘her team’ (the Conservative Party) went from being predicted to win a historic landslide to losing their overall majority in the 2017 General Election? Here, I review how Theresa May’s lack of engagement with key media platforms led to one of the most disastrous Conservative campaigns in modern history.

On Friday 9 June 2017, the British electorate woke up to what was deemed almost unthinkable by traditional press outlets weeks before when Theresa May called a snap General Election on 18 April 2017: a hung parliament.

Having failed to secure the landslide expected by pollsters, members of her advisory committee, and if one can believe the Sunday Express, Jean Claude Junker (who allegedly pressured May to hold an election in order to get a stronger mandate for a hard Brexit), Theresa May spoke to the country outside 10 Downing Street in an apparent attempt to assure the country that nothing had changed:

Many of the Prime Minister’s enemies could not hide their glee at such a disastrous result: leading the backlash was the former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (sacked by Theresa May after being reportedly told that he ‘needed to get to know his party better’). Now editor of the Evening Standard, Osborne exclaimed on BBC 1’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday 11 June: “She’s a dead woman walking”. Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party, also twisted the knife: “Whatever happens, Theresa May is toast”.

How, though, did it all go so very wrong for Team Theresa? There are a variety of answers that have been offered up by various media outlets over the last few days:

  1. Her team underestimated the youth vote. 18-24 year olds have hitherto felt disenfranchised by politics. They are perceived to feel that either their vote ‘doesn’t count’, or that when they do vote, they aren’t listened to (the EU referendum is a case in point). Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, successfully mobilised this core vote to great effect. The Conservative Party also underestimated the 25-35 age group, suggesting that university tuition fees continue to be a problem after the 2010 coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, where fees rose to £9000 per year.
  2. The Conservative Party Manifesto. The main problem with the manifesto centred around the plan to provide social care for the elderly. This was slammed by many as a ‘dementia tax’, where the manifesto pledged that £100,000 would be protected if elderly patients needed to pay for their own care (it had been suggested before the manifesto’s release that there would be a cap on the amount of care costs paid). As one un-named backbench Conservative MP put it: “It seemed like two people got off their potties without wiping their botties and wrote a manifesto.” (Sunday Times, 11 June 2017: 13). Nigel Evans, Conservative MP for Ribble Valley, was more damning: “It was an amazing own goal. We didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot, we shot ourselves in the head… A manifesto should be about apple pie and cream but ours was laced with arsenic.” (The Sun, 10 June 2017: 9) How were campaigners for the Conservative Party supposed to sell such a manifesto that attacked their key voters on the doorstep? More importantly, the Labour Party Manifesto, accused of being funded by a ‘magic money tree’, appealed to voters from across parties, and offered ‘hope’ to an electorate sick of austerity politics.
  3. Theresa May herself. Ultimately, she became the key issue with the entire campaign. First, if you want to run a presidential-style campaign based on personality, you need a personality. Second, no one likes vacuous statements like ‘strong and stable leadership’. Especially if you commit U-turn after U-turn on manifesto policy and reveal that you are not so ‘strong and stable’ after all. Third, don’t call what the electorate perceive to be a ‘stupid’ election: nobody likes that. Least of all because the British have been called to the polls three (if you live in Scotland, five) times over the last four years. Brenda from Bristol became the proclaimed ‘voice of the nation’ when told that there was to be another General Election: “You’re joking?! Not another one?!” Fourth, never assume that the electorate are willing to give you a coronation. Finally, Theresa May lacked the magic ingredient: hope. Jeremy Corbyn offered this to younger voters, and hope is something which Barrack Obama campaigned on in 2008 (“Yes we can”). Theresa May offered no hope to anyone, and neither did the Conservative Party manifesto.  Her campaign echoes that of Edward Heath’s in 1974, where he asked the country “Who governs?” The answer returned by the electorate was “Not you”.

These points understood together point towards an aspect of Theresa May’s campaign which was not as effective as it could have been: social media. Unlike the Labour Party who mobilised Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets relatively well, the Conservative Party, or rather ‘Team Theresa’, focused more on traditional press formats. This, I would argue, contributed to May’s failed campaign. Hillary Clinton also failed in this area, with @gyalalmighty summing up the difference between Clinton and Bernie Saunders thus:

‘Bernie Saunders is the grandpa who’s really nice and tells you stories about the war or civil rights movement when you didn’t even ask’.

‘Hilary [sic] Clinton is like the white mom who tries to be “cool” by saying/failing at using slang. She makes lemon squares for school bake sales’.

Sound familiar? To quote the Independent on Clinton’s Presidential campaign:

Complacent beyond belief, riven by a sense of entitlement, an empty slogan-fixated orator of pulverising tedium, incapable of projecting empathy, twice as robotic as the Supreme Dalek… Fatally underestimating the appeal of a maverick rival promising change [Donald Trump], Hillary hid herself away as far as possible in the assumption that she could coast to the line.

A ‘maverick rival’ promising change, @jeremycorbyn had 1.11 million followers on Thursday 8 June (this has since risen to 1.25 million followers at time of writing). @theresa_may has 354,000 followers. Reviewing both party leaders’ tweets, Jeremy Corbyn’s most popular recent tweet scored 157,954 likes (https://twitter.com/jeremycorbyn/status/873899597147639809), Theresa May’s 4,683 (https://twitter.com/theresa_may/status/871395319510118401) [at time of writing]. Momentum, the grassroots campaign movement established in 2015 after Jeremy Corbyn’s successful Labour Party leadership bid, was also integral to Corbyn’s social media campaign. They developed MyNearestMarginal.com to mobilise activists and they offered schooling in how to make best use of social media.

As Andre van Loon, research and insight director at We Are Social, explains: “They [the Conservatives and Theresa May] would have seen the data as it came through and yet they didn’t change anything. They could have tried to be more appealing to young people from the start.” van Loon further argues: “Theresa May’s core message of stability did not appear to play well with undecided voters, but Labour’s engaging and social posts performed better: The ‘strong and stable’ message didn’t seem to attract any new support on social media” (Telegraph, 9 June 2017).

Theresa May’s campaign also failed in making use of another aspect of the media, that of taking part in live televised debates against leaders of other political parties. This concept is relatively new in Britain, having been introduced during the 2010 General Election. A guide to politicised television debates can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-26753299.

Since their introduction in the UK, ‘Leaders Debates’ have adopted different formats. In 2010, there were three debates held between the leaders of the three main parties: Gordon Brown (Labour Party), David Cameron (Conservative Party) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats). The debates were broadcast on ITV, Sky and the BBC on successive Thursday evenings. In 2015, this format was adapted where the BBC and ITV staged debates to include more political parties: Conservative Party, Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, Green Party, UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru. Sky and Channel 4 also broadcast a head-to-head debate between David Cameron (Prime Minister) and Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition).

In 2017 the format changed again. This time, ITV broadcast their Leaders Debate on Thursday 18 May. All party leaders had been invited to attend, however after Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn refused, those who turned up included Tim Farron (Liberal Democrats), Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Paul Nuttal (UKIP), Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) and Caroline Lucas (Green Party). As Theresa May refused to debate Jeremy Corbyn, Sky and Channel 4 adapted their previous head-to-head debate broadcast in 2015, and instead arranged for the two main party leaders to answer questions from a live studio audience and then be interviewed by Jeremy Paxman separately in May v Corbyn: The Battle for Number 10 (broadcast on Monday 29 May). Finally, the BBC held the Election Debate on Wednesday 31 May. As with ITV’s Leaders Debate, this was to be a seven-way podium battle between ‘spokespeople’ from the seven parties, alluding to Theresa May’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to attend televised debates with other party leaders.

By refusing to appear on this media platform, and by Jeremy Corbyn’s late U-turn announcing that he would show up to debate other party leaders on the BBC after all, this worked to undermine May’s decision to avoid the debates, and arguably contributed to making her refusal appear arrogant and a weakness in her leadership. Indeed, during the BBC’s Election Debate Caroline Lucas slammed May’s absence: “I think the first rule of leadership is to show up. You don’t call a general election and say it is the most important election in her lifetime and then not even be bothered to debate the issues at hand.” Tim Farron received huge applause from the audience when asking: “Where do you think Theresa May is tonight? Take a look out your window. She might be out there sizing up your house to pay for your social care.”

She was also roasted on Twitter, for example on the official Twitter account for the TV show House of Cards: “Theresa May. They respect you more when you show strength. Or show up”. This post that was shared more than 13,000 times. Her refusal to appear also started a parody Twitter search:

As the self-proclaimed ‘political love-child’ of Gordon Brown and Hillary Clinton, one would think that Theresa May might have learnt from her adopted political parents’ mistakes. But then, as I was once told: ‘As parents, you can hope that your children will listen to the mistakes you made yourself and learn from them. But sometimes, if they won’t listen to you, it’s necessary to let them learn for themselves’. In her disastrous General Election campaign, Theresa May will have to learn the hard way.

*At time of writing, Theresa May is still “squatting in Downing Street”, as Emily Thornberry puts it (but one day is a long time in politics).


Thank you to Professor John Charmley and Dr Ellen Wright, who kindly read this piece before publication and offered excellent advice.


Llewella Chapman is a PhD student at the University of East Anglia. Her doctoral research focuses on the use of film and television in the UK heritage industry with particular reference to the representation of Henry VIII and Hampton Court Palace. She has published on fashion and lifestyle as promoted in the James Bond films, and is currently under contract with I. B. Tauris to write a monograph entitled Fashioning James Bond: Costume, Gender and Identity in the World of 007. Her research interests include British cinema and television history, fashion, costume and gender.

https://www.uea.ac.uk/ama/research-students/profile/llewella-burton

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