Special Report: The story behind Theresa May's failed North East gamble

A special report from Peter Bould, our Communications Director and former Head of Conservative Party Press in the North East, looking back at the campaigns of #GE2017

In the weeks ahead, much will be written about Theresa May’s devastating election own goal and Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise march into Tory-held seats. The political landscape of the North East, where she took her biggest political gamble remains unchanged with 29 seats - 26 belonging to Labour and three to the Conservatives. The Tories lost Stockton South to Labour but replaced it by winning Middlesbrough and East Cleveland.

Labour remains dominant in the region and the enormous crowds that gathered on the banks of the Tyne to see Jeremy Corbyn speak out the Sage Gateshead will be one of the most memorable images from a what became a political earthquake few saw coming. The Conservative vote stands at a two-decade high across the North East and Cumbria, but the
Conservatives wasted their historic chance to make a breakthrough in seats across the region.

So what really happened?

Why did no one see the election result coming? Even up until a few hours before polling stations closed, most opinion polls were predicting a Conservative majority, some of around 60. On the doorstep Conservative campaigners reported large upticks in the Conservative
vote amongst older Brexit voters, which they presumed would see them winning new seats in region's like ours. The surprise factor seems to have been turnout, up around 10% compared to the last election which even caught the region's Labour MP's by surprise. Much of the extra
turnout was among younger voters and whilst the Conservative vote did increase across the region, those younger voters helped create a Labour surge.

How was the election won and lost?

It’s a tale of two very different campaigns, or more specifically, two manifestos and visions for the future. Labour made a bold bid to activate young voters and families, the most eye-catching policy being plans to scrap tuition fees. The party’s communications succeeded, built around social media to mobilise the young vote and go direct to voters amid hostile national
press headlines. 

In contrast the Conservatives failed to communicate a positive message, with many suggesting the Conservatives seems devoid of ideas for the future. The Conservatives' Manifesto is already being described as the "new longest suicide note in history." Badly communicated proposals to cut winter fuel payments, abolish the pensions triple lock and the infamous ‘dementia tax’ further drove a wedge through the Tory core vote. 

What happens next?

Theresa May remains Prime Minister with a DUP confidence and supply arrangement allowing her to pass crucial laws. But how long will that last? Cautious Conservative MP's are said to already be preparing for an election this side of Christmas. In the short term the party does not have the appetite for a leadership challenge, but few believe that the Prime Minister will serve a full 5 years as she suggested in her Downing Street speech. If Theresa May is still Prime Minister and party leader by the time of the Conservative Party conference in October, she will have performed the kind of escape that even Houdini would be proud of.

What about the North East?

The Conservatives failure to break through and win seats in the North East is the reason Theresa May's gamble failed to pay off. The Government has now been sent a message that it
must do more to listen to the concerns and aspirations of people in places like the North East. There is now a unique opportunity to shape the debate and influence the new government’s agenda. Policy North will be doing exactly that.

The DUP make potentially 'interesting' political partners. In their manifesto they propose scrapping Air Passenger Duty, establishing Free Ports to boost trade and manufacturing and a Trade Accelerator Plan to help businesses explore new export markets. In Policy North’s ‘Global North’ strategy, we set out similar ideas to boost growth and good jobs in the North.

At this very early stage, with the political dust still settling, we will be working with businesses and political parties and MP's to help find fresh ideas that will deliver a stronger, truly 'Global North.'

Follow Peter on twitter: @pbould