Contact details

contact email address

Friday, 28 April 2017

Corbyn & Farron stumble while Mrs May looks on

Column by David Hough.

The first full week of the General Election campaign got off to a slow start, as could be expected because parliament wasn’t prorogued (the session ended) until this afternoon, and will officially be dissolved next Wednesday, the day before voting in County Council elections.

Therefore, there have been fewer set-piece events, with Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron making a few public appearances, but not the full-on campaign we will see building up from today.

However, that doesn’t mean that nothing has happened, and in the early part of this week, most of it happened to Mr. Corbyn. He was interviewed on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning, where he was asked questions about Labour’s defence policy.

Mr. Corbyn’s views on the Trident replacement are well known, in that he opposes it, and has long campaigned against nuclear weapons. Andrew Marr tried to get Mr. Corbyn to repeat these views in the interview, but he stuck to a line saying there would be a full defence review in the event of Labour winning the election, as normally happens with a new government.

Where Jeremy Corbyn did prevaricate was when asked, several times, whether Trident renewal would be in the manifesto, to which Mr. Corbyn said that he’d have to wait until the manifesto was published. Unfortunately, Mr. Corbyn’s answers just served to muddy the waters, because renewal is official Labour Party policy. This was confirmed by Labour’s Shadow defence Secretary, Nia Griffiths, on Monday’s Daily Politics, and she said it would be in the manifesto.

As expected, many elements of the media made much of Mr. Corbyn’s interview, and the usual accusations of being weak on defence, were across the front pages, and it makes it difficult for Labour Party spokespeople, as they are wanting to try and provide a united front to try and win the election, or at least stem the losses.

This highlights something, I think could be a constant theme of this election, in which statements from Labour spokespeople could be undermined by unclear, or even contradictory ones from the leadership. I think many people will be watching any statements from Mr. Corbyn very carefully, looking out for these occasions, and possibly creating them even when no difference really exists.

Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t the only party leader to face difficulties this week, as the Liberal democrat leader faced questions over his views on gay sex, and how they squared with his Christian faith. On previous occasions, Mr. Farron has been reluctant to give a clear answer on this specific question, although he has stated that he doesn’t have an issue with gay relationships.

During the 2010-15 parliament, Mr. Farron did support equal marriage legislation, but abstained on the final vote, as he felt, at the time, that there were some issues in the legislation over the protection of religious minorities. He has since stated he regrets abstaining, if now fully supports it. Tim Farron isn’t the only leading politician to have done this, with former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan also having done so.

Earlier this week Tim Farron finally tried to put the issue to rest saying in an interview, “I don't think gay sex is a sin. I take the view that as a political leader though it isn't my job to pontificate on theological matters.”. But as uncomfortable a few days as this has been for Mr. Farron, it is an issue that is unlikely to play much part in the election. I wouldn’t expect it to lead to the Conservatives produces posters and adverts the way Mr. Corbyn’s statements have.

It does make Theresa May’s ‘submarine’ strategy seem very sensible, and she has avoided making too many public appearances, with just a small number of events speaking to crowds (in Wales last Monday following the shock poll Sunday). She has done a couple of face-to-face interviews, in which she has stuck very firmly to her ‘strong and stable’ line. Mrs. May has obviously taken the view that the less said the better, and she’ll let others carry the burden, while she plays the stateswoman. A strategy that seems to be working, if the polls are anything like accurate.

The Conservatives did attempt to keep the focus on Jeremy Corbyn by letting Boris Johnson off his leash, calling Mr. Corbyn a ‘magwump’ (which is, ‘a person who remains aloof or independent, especially from party politics. ‘). But typically, Mr. Johnson managed to go off message, saying he though the UK would find it difficult to stay out if the US decided to take further action in Syria, making that the story, and the other comments an amusing sideline.

As we enter the first full week of campaigning, the polls continue to show substantial Conservative leads, and they even showed a ten point one in Wales, and that chunks are being taken out of the SNP in Scotland. The Tories seem to be benefiting from a large fall in support for UKIP, and as I mentioned last week, some Labour voters switching directly across.

The Prime Minister will undoubtedly have to make more appearances in public, and it will enable the voting public to gain a much better idea of what she is like. Mrs. May strikes me as a warmer Margaret Thatcher, seemingly calm and assured, and not prone to making off the cuff remarks of the sort that often caused Mr. Cameron difficulties. I don’t see any sudden commitments on childcare or the suchlike, it will all stick solidly to the script.

That script is going to revolve around the EU negotiations, an area where the Conservatives believe they have the most traction, and while Labour, especially, will try to steer it onto other areas, the election will, as I’ve said before, be dominated by the EU. This is why the Liberal Democrats are also playing a strong hand, standing up as the representatives of the 48% who voted to Remain.

By this time next week, people will be going to the polls in the County Council elections. These may give us some idea of where the parties stand, but I will be reluctant to read too much into them. Turnout will be much lower than in the General Election, and anything that comes out of them will need to be read very carefully.

David was Labour candidate for Rayleigh & Wickford at the 2015 general election