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The art of election war: Is May underestimating Corbyn?

Sun Tzu - Credit: Archant

Of one thing I’m sure – May is beatable

It is one of the first rules of strategy – never underestimate your opponents. Go back as far as Sun Tzu, Chinese genius general of the 6th century. ‘He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponent is sure to be captured by them.’

This is not easy, especially when politicians are so used to propagandising against their opponents that they end up believing it all. One of the reasons Hillary Clinton is not president is that when she was taking on Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination nine years ago her team believed its own propaganda about the younger candidate’s weaknesses. When she finally secured the nomination then in common with most members of the human race she believed that the American public would never put ‘that man’ in the White House. Oopsadaisy to scary scary Trumpian times.

Closer to home I think back to a conversation I had with George Osborne when he was Chancellor, his chum Dave was PM and of one thing they were sure – Theresa May would never get the Tory leadership. Too cold. Friendless. Devoid of the human skills needed.

Osborne was aware of his own weaknesses – the posh boy thing, for example, though it hadn’t stopped Dave getting to the top. And of course he knew that his closeness to Dave meant that if one sank then the other would go down too. It’s why Osborne, lacking Cameron’s Etonian confidence that he could wriggle his way out of any corner, was less keen on the idea of an EU referendum. On that too, Cameron underestimated his Brexiteering opponents and overestimated his own powers of persuasion, with fellow EU leaders and with the British public.

I know from my own interactions with the Remain campaign that Cameron and Osborne were infuriated by May’s reluctance to give all but cursory support. Looking at her now, Hard Brexiteer on steroids, it is easy to think she was just sitting there, reading the signs, plotting to move when Dave threw in the towel, and shift her party’s position.

Perhaps she reads Sun Tzu: ‘Move not unless you see an advantage … fight not unless the position is critical.’ She fought when it became so, and saw off all-comers without a contest. ‘The best victory is when the opponent surrenders of its own accord before there are any actual hostilities,’ the great man wrote. ‘It is best to win without fighting.’

So the woman the posh boys said would never be Prime Minister, won without a fight, and cast colleagues to the sidelines as she embarked on a campaign more presidential than Thatcher or Blair, let alone Cameron, would ever have dared put together. Meanwhile Cameron is in his shed writing his memoirs to ‘cement his place in history’ – that ship has sailed, Dave – and Osborne is pretending to himself that editing a newspaper is some kind of substitute for a proper job helping to shape the world. Tell me about it.

Cameron did not enjoy May’s company. For their regular PM-Home Secretary bilateral he would sometimes ask Nick Clegg or even a special adviser to take his place. Clegg found these meetings both frustrating and fascinating. Frustrating because of what he saw as her illiberalism, and her inability to engage in anything beyond what was strictly on the agenda. Fascinating because she had a rare skill – the ability to tolerate total silence. She says what she wants to say. Then shuts up. Leaving the other person to burble. Cameron found this not so much fascinating as weird. You can see something of this approach when she is interviewed. Most politicians start to answer with their face and body even as the question is being asked. She reveals nothing, not even a nod or a shake of the head, let alone a smile or a shaft of light behind the eyes.

It is lack of empathy, or even the ability to make the smallest of small talk, that led Cameron and Osborne to believe that no matter how strong a reputation May built as Home Secretary she would never be trusted with the leadership. ‘Can you imagine her on the campaign trail?’ they used to chuckle to each other. ‘Trying to talk to real people?’

Her campaign handlers have found a way of dealing with that – a campaign so controlled and stage-managed it makes my efforts in 1997, 2001 and 2005 seem anarchic by comparison. Photographers already have albums full of May’s mouth contortions recording the strange reactions real people seem to provoke in her.

Yet what Cameron and Osborne saw as robotic she hopes to project as strength. What they saw as unempathetic she seeks to project as serious, no nonsense. And precisely because she doesn’t seem to have most people’s capacity to gauge the emotions of those around her, it makes her more able just to get on and do what she wants to do, and to create fear around her.

How scared did her Cabinet look as she addressed the media over their heads when launching her manifesto? How many have had the balls, I wonder, to ask her straight out, as some of Tony Blair’s Cabinet did during elections, whether they were for the chop afterwards?

Of course if she gets the big majority this election was created for her strength will grow. So will the fear, not least among new MPs who will feel they owe their place to her. But as time went on she would discover it is not enough, that she’d need ready supplies of humanity and emotional intelligence as well as brute force and the ability to deliver a strong and stable soundbite for the millionth time as though it was the first. As a paediatrician at a health conference in Ireland said to me last week, ‘why does your Prime Minister sound like my sat nav?’

She will also need to broaden her team and its reach. Speaking as a fully fledged control freak, I understand her desire for a strong centre and a tight ship. But though the TB team made sure we had that, we also did our best to get the whole government machine signed up to what we were doing. As Home Secretary May came to rely on her co-chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, much as TB relied on a small number of his advisers. But part of our job was to bring in others from around Westminster and Whitehall, not push them away. She needs less bullying control freakery and more Sun Tzu here … ‘Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.’ As things stand, Hill and Timothy appear to be the only two viewed in that light and given the cock-up over ‘my manifesto,’ that might not last. She needs more.

If it is true that the social care proposals were put there late, without bringing on board key ministers and other opinion formers in the parliamentary party, then that suggests poor political management and an underestimation of people who can cause you trouble down the track. That will be exacerbated if Timothy not May was the driving force behind the policy, as with a return to selective schools. May was quick to say there is not such thing as Mayism. But if there is such a thing as Timothyism and she is but the vehicle for it, she should watch out. So should he.

I can only imagine the hoo-ha had this been back in TB’s day and one of his special advisers, rather than the leader, was identified as the source of a policy that turned out to be as controversial and unthought-through as this one. Could it be that the slavish support for May in the right-wing media – payback for Hard Brexit and dropping Leveson 2 – is leading her towards arrogance and complacency, and believing too much the propaganda of their flag-wavers, with the Brexit papers little more than fanzines, and Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail taking on the ‘oh Theresa, oh Theresa’ tone of an adolescent with a permanent hard-on for his school governess.

Also, in the manner in which she has presented her manifesto and indeed the entire campaign, might it be that just as Cameron and Osborne underestimated her, she is underestimating Jeremy Corbyn? As one of the authors of the failed ABC ‘Anyone But Corbyn’ approach in the 2015 Labour leadership contest, I concede she would not be the first.

As John McDonnell goes around with Mao’s Little Red Book, perhaps Corbyn is more of a Sun Tzu Art of War man after all. ‘Pretend inferiority and encourage his [the enemy’s] arrogance,’ as the master strategist put it fifteen centuries ago. Of one thing I am sure – May is very beatable. The question remains whether she can be beaten by the opponents she has. At least the answer is less clear than it seemed a few weeks ago. She called the election convinced Corbyn guaranteed her a landslide. As things are turning out, it seems she is helping him every but as much as he is helping her.

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