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The phoney war is over. Let the battle commence

3 June 2024
| by Field Team

As the election battle heats up, we take stock of what's happened so far and what to expect in debate week.

So a week-and-a-half into the general election campaign and it feels like a decent moment to take stock of how its going and where we’ve got to.

Like so many elections, the first week is often a little disjointed with the slight feeling of a phoney war. The Opposition parties can be forgiven for making less than smooth starts, but the Government too seems almost to have been taken by surprise by the calling of the poll. If only the Prime Minister had told a few more of his colleagues perhaps?

After a series of decidedly wonky photo calls in the first days, the Conservative campaign does seem to have settled down and new policies are coming thick and fast, almost all targeting the core demographic of older volers. The campaign is also strikingly all about one person, the main man Rishi Sunak. Where is Chancellor Jeremy Hunt or Home Secretary James Cleverly? In their constituencies, we assume, because there is previous little evidence of them being allowed out to front a national message. The Tories are gently broadening the pitch – rolling out Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch today to push Labour on gender laws, after Health Secretary Victoria Atkins emerged to promote pharmacy reform over the weekend. Nevertheless, it remains a starkly presidential strategy from the PM, despite his poor personal ratings – a challenge likely only to increase with the first TV debate tomorrow night.

On the Labour side, there does seem to be more of a team approach with prominent roles for Rachel Reeves and Angela Rayner, as well as Keir Starmer. But what would otherwise be characterised as a classic safe, steady start from a front-runner has been somewhat overshadowed by a remarkable mishandling over the (de)selection of Diane Abbott. It’s been an open secret for some time that there was a deal being done whereby Abbott would be restored the Whip and (one suspects) promised a peerage in return for agreeing not to stand again in Hackney North. But one way or another that deal broke down, exacerbated by some clumsy media spinning. In the end Keir Starmer didn’t feel in a strong enough position to get rid of Abbott as he clearly wanted to. “If he can’t face down Diane Abbott, how will he fare with Vladimir Putin?” is a line one will hear a lot from Conservatives in the coming weeks. 

The Liberal Democrats might just have had the best first week of all, with their clever media operation recognising that they need to do things differently. As such, we’ve seen Ed Davey having the time of his life at theme parks and lakes, and going cycling. Name recognition and visibility has been a huge problem for the party in recent years and we think this smart strategy might just work.

After the early skirmishes, we can expect to see the election campaign “proper” kicking off in earnest this week. Both ‘battle busses’ are now on the road around the country. Tonight, YouGov will drop their first mega poll of the campaign, the results of which may set the momentum for the week. The first head to head TV debate is on ITV tomorrow night and we expect party manifestos will possibly follow next week. 

Usually, the pressure in a TV debate is on the Opposition Leader who needs to look the match for the incumbent and exude that magical “Prime Ministerial” air. But this time round, with the Labour lead remaining in the stratosphere, really it is Rishi Sunak who most needs to deliver tomorrow night. A boring nil-nil draw would suit Keir Starmer just fine, and with his Barrister’s debating skills he may fancy his chances of doing a good deal better than that. So the pressure is all on Rishi. A knock-out punch seldom happens in an election campaign, but somehow he needs to gain some momentum, put Labour onto the back foot and restore some morale for the door-knockers up and down the country. Tomorrow we shall see – let battle commence!

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