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We’re about halfway to polling day, with one TV debate down and all the manifestos out.
It’s far enough to show us just what sort of fight this is: confusing, and deliberately so.
You see, the Conservative campaign is essentially Boris Johnson personified.
Firstly, it’s unashamedly populist. Just as the prime minister tried to be all things to all people during his leadership campaign last summer, the Tories seem to be promising something for everyone.
On one hand, they’re pledging a massive spending boost on everything from healthcare to the environment. But they also want to freeze taxes with their triple lock, or even cut some by raising the National Insurance threshold.
That sort of fiscal paradox begs the question: where’s the money coming from? But the real question is: does it really matter? Your average, unengaged voter is more likely to see something they like, and confirmation bias prevents them from questioning how realistic it is.
The other way the Conservative campaign resembles its leader is in its—shall we say—liberal use of the truth. Even in last week’s ITV debate, Johnson falsely claimed that Jeremy Corbyn wanted to hike corporation tax to the highest level in Europe. At a campaign level, the Tories argued Labour would spend £1.2 trillion before its manifesto was even published. The figure may have been disputed, but what matters is the number is out there and the topic has become a talking point.
Chuck in the doctored Keir Starmer interview, the bizarre rebranding of CCHQ’s press office to a fact checking service, and a “fake Labour manifesto” website, and you’ve got an environment where it’s difficult to know which facts and figures to trust.
So what do voters focus on instead? The charisma and personality of party leaders. Research has suggested people are predisposed to do so (like this experiment where children correctly picked winners of parliamentary runoffs by just looking at candidates’ faces).
This is an area where Johnson excels, and the polls reflect that. Opinium shows the Tories opening a 19-point lead on Labour. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems have stalled as Jo Swinson’s approval ratings have fallen. (On a related point, if you’re interested in which polling questions are the best predictors of election outcomes, Number Cruncher Politics Founder Matt Singh ran us through it on Wednesday’s Bloomberg Westminster.)
So expect to see more trickery in the rest of the campaign. Because the more the conversation moves away from hard facts and figures, the easier it is for Johnson to win on personality and impossible promises.
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