Andrew Vine: Theresa May needs to offer more than a safety-first slogan

Theresa May did a joint interview with her husband Philip on the BBC's The One Show.
Theresa May did a joint interview with her husband Philip on the BBC's The One Show.
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I’VE started to groan inwardly every time Theresa May parrots her campaign slogan “strong and stable”, because it represents everything wrong with the way this election is being run.

She might as well adopt the slogan “clenched and clichéd”, which just about sums up the safety-first, risk-averse and platitude-heavy approach of a leader and party as certain as they can be of victory on June 8.

Assuming that voters will subliminally come to believe the “strong and stable” soundbite as fact if it is drilled into them relentlessly appears to be a central plank of the Conservative campaign, but how uninspiring a strategy it is.

Equally uninspiring is the flip-side of the slogan, the attack on Labour and the Lib Dems as a “coalition of chaos”, which is being hammered into the psyche of voters with the same determination.

Where is the inspiring vision, the magic ingredient that will enthuse the electorate and make them mark an X against the name of their Conservative candidate in the hope of a brighter future?

Where is the passion that fired the Brexit referendum campaign, with its appeals to both the hearts and minds of voters? They are entirely absent.

Instead, we have – barring extraordinary unforeseen circumstances – the next Prime Minister and Government ticking off the days engaged in negative campaigning and control freakery.

Witness the choreography of the campaign trail, with careful screening of audiences to minimise the chances of a member of the awkward squad asking a question to which there is no pre-cooked answer – like the disabled voter angry at benefits cuts in Abingdon yesterday.

Even Theresa and Philip May’s appearance on the BBC’s One Show, supposedly an informal interview, was so carefully orchestrated it became absurd to the point of her saying one of the qualities that first attracted her to him was that he is “stable”. How swooningly romantic.

Both had obviously been so painstakingly rehearsed beforehand on all likely questions – and suitable answers – that they exhibited all the animation and human warmth of Madame Tussaud’s wax effigies of themselves.

Anyone would think that the election was balanced on a knife-edge, so cautiously do Mrs May and her party step.

This attitude would be understandable were the circumstances those of the 2015 election, when the opinion polls – wrong though they turned out to be – had the Conservatives and Labour neck-and neck.

But it isn’t like that now. A series of unpredictable events and upheavals have combined to turn Mrs May into the luckiest British politician in decades.

Even if there is inevitably a degree of mistrust in opinion polls showing Labour trailing the Tories by a wide margin, the recent local election results point to a party that does not have the confidence of voters, even in its own traditional heartlands.

Labour’s chaotic response to the leaking of its manifesto last week only added to the sense of it being on the back foot.

Ukip is a busted flush, and the Lib Dem challenge unlikely to be a serious threat, so what is Mrs May afraid of?

“Strong and stable” is not a good enough mantra for voters to give her the solid majority she craves.

She has form for this sort of sterile soundbite. Remember “Brexit means Brexit”, repeated ad nauseum for weeks on end, accompanied by a sort of “I know something you don’t” smile?

That slogan was quietly dropped when it became clear that it was meaningless and created a vacuum instead of providing answers.

“Strong and stable” simply won’t do. It appears to have been designed to ensure an orderly coronation procession for Mrs May back to Downing Street, but its failure to enthuse voters could prove counter-productive and result in a low turnout because people have nothing to vote for other than a safe pair of hands.

The electorate shows every sign of already having accepted that the Conservatives are a more credible Government-in-waiting than Labour, so repeatedly punching an opponent already on the ropes is a waste of energy.

There is another, and better, way for Mrs May to persuade the electorate to give her the landslide she so obviously craves – and probably needs when the going gets tough over Brexit, both at home and in Europe.

And that is to stop treating voters as half-wits incapable of grasping anything more sophisticated than “Conservatives good – Labour bad” soundbites.

Give them something to be optimistic about, something worth voting for.

From her position of strength, Mrs May should have the courage to set out a coherent vision for the future that inspires people to turn out and vote Conservative, especially those considering defecting from Labour and Ukip.

That’s what elections should be about, fostering hope and setting out a programme that puts the country on the road to a better future. If she wants a landslide, Mrs May has to earn it and do much more than parrot a slogan that has already outstayed its welcome.