The ‘dating agency’ that so nearly made this nightmare come true
Just one of the clever tactics used by Labour to run rings around a woefully inept Tory campaign HQ, as revealed in our definitive account of the Election
IT’S the political book of the year, a gripping account of the 2017 Election. Last week, we revealed just how close Theresa May came to being toppled after a disastrous campaign. Here, in our final extract, we show how Jeremy Corbyn’s social media machine came within a whisker of putting him in No10 even as Tory HQ expected to win big…
JEREMY CORBYN did not want to be leader of the Labour Party, let alone Prime Minister. In the leadership contest of June 2015, Corbyn had made it on to the ballot paper only thanks to a final flurry of nominations from sympathetic MPs. ‘You had better make f ****** sure I don’t win,’ said Corbyn, terrified at the possibility, however slim, that he might have to lead a national political party. But not only did he become leader, he came within a few seats of moving into Downing Street.
The story of the 2017 Election campaign is of a Conservative Party comprehensively outplayed by a Labour Party that could draw on tens of thousands of enthusiastic supporters.
Momentum, the political organisation that grew out of Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership in 2015, was key to the ‘Corbyn surge’. And the Tory machine was not ready for the snap contest when the Prime Minister called it.
‘This point is massively underrated,’ says Damian Green, the First Secretary of State and a long-standing friend of Theresa May. ‘We called a snap Election and our troops weren’t ready. None of us was expecting a snap Election, but Labour were.’
Momentum’s potency came from its ability to adapt and grow online rapidly. It developed software that allowed its thousands of volunteers to club together and share cars to drive to a battleground seat for a day’s campaigning.
They used an app called My Nearest Marginal – essentially a ‘dating agency’ that allowed volunteers to find a lift to where they were needed. During the campaign, more than 100,000 people used it to campaign in more than 100 seats.
Even Tory strategist Sir Lynton Crosby was impressed: He says: ‘Labour had an infrastructure in place… You can have the best techniques in the world and all the money you want but it doesn’t matter if you can’t get people out to vote on the day.’
By the day of the Election, Labour was within striking distance of more than 40 Conservative-held seats. Corbyn would go on to win 28 of these and to come within 1,000 votes of winning 14 more.
But in Labour HQ on polling day, strategists still expected a Conservative majority of 80 to 90, so Momentum spent their final days embedded almost exclusively in defensive marginal seats.
If Momentum had known what was happening on the ground, instead of wasting huge effort on seats that turned out to be rock-solid Labour, they would have turned their fire on constituencies which turned out to be up for grabs. Labour offi470 cial Sam Tarry says Labour could easily have taken up to 15 extra seats, a result that would have left the Conservatives unable to form a majority government even with the DUP. ‘I don’t think the Tories realise just how close they were to losing,’ he says.
At Conservative Campaign HQ, May’s aides expected to win big. Ten days into the campaign, Jim Messina, their American data consultant, suggested they would win seats – enough for a staggering majority of 290. The extent to which the Tories took their eye off the ball was exemplified by the dispatch of Conservative MPs from safe seats to nearby targets only to turn up at their own count on the night to find they had lost.
In Reading East, Rob Wilson, a Minister, was asked to go to help in Slough because his seat was deemed ‘safe’. He lost by 4,000 votes.
Why had May’s Conservatives allowed Labour to catch up in the race for digital disciples to spread her word? In part it was about a structural blockage: it was hard to get lines of attack signed off when all decisions had to go through the joint chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill.
One Tory campaign official says: ‘You can’t do it like that, especially in the age of social media. You’ve done too much damage by the time you’ve played around and made a decision’. May was also frustrated by the refusal of Crosby and his colleague Mark Textor to share data with her. ‘I don’t know how we’re doing,’ she complained.
A May adviser says: ‘She put all her faith in the people running it and believed the numbers were there, and she was doing what their strategy told her she should do.’
The Corbyn surge started to hurt the Tories after the disastrous launch of May’s manifesto and its
We called a snap Election but we just weren’t ready
so-called dementia tax proposals. When an opinion poll suggested the Tories could lose 20 seats, almost no one believed it. Sitting inside CCHQ, Jim Messina tweeted: ‘Spent the day laughing at yet another stupid poll.’ He now admits he should never have sent it.
Gradually, the images of Corbyn addressing crowds of thousands started to rattle May’s closest aides, who at one stage asked colleagues to begin planning a similar rally for her. The idea was dropped after it was realised she would be unlikely to draw the same crowds and would look pathetic by comparison.
May’s refusal to take part in the leaders’ debates contributed to a narrative that proved even more damaging – the idea that she, personally, was overly controlling. It added to the sense that the Prime Minister was more a political robot than a human being.
A reporter in Cornwall caused a Twitter storm when he said that he had been locked in a room, unable to watch May’s visit to a local factory. The cartoonish impression of a control-freak dictator locking up the free press spread rapidly online, with one senior adviser to the party describing it as ‘here is Theresa May looking like a t**.’
At every opportunity, Crosby pushed the Tory campaign team to highlight Corbyn’s alleged record of opposing anti-terror laws and choosing a selection of ‘friends’ and associates who included Hamas and the IRA. Hardly anyone in the Tory campaign now thinks attacking Corbyn over his alleged links to the IRA did them much good: to most people under 40, the Troubles simply seem like ancient history.
Even when Labour’s full manifesto leaked, it did not harm the Corbyn campaign.
Reality hit home for the Tories terrifyingly late. As the campaign neared its end, Messina arranged to meet Fiona Hill in a Soho hotel to warn her that he feared the campaign was going wrong.
Messina earned a reputation as a political fixer for Barack Obama in 2008, telling a magazine at the time: ‘I handle what people on the cam- paign call s**t sandwiches. If it goes wrong, I have to deal with it.’ Messina, 47, believed he was in such an unpalatable situation as May’s campaign hit trouble.
Hill told Messina she would meet him for a drink at the Ham Yard Hotel. At 10pm, Messina left the bar ‘after sitting there for two and a half hours’. Hill had stood him up.
On polling day, June 8, Crosby’s phone buzzed with a text message from a campaign official fighting a marginal seat in Southampton. ‘F*** me – there’s ten buses of Labour activists here,’ it said. ‘200 activists on the street.’
In the final weeks of the Election Hill and Timothy lost their grip, according to insiders. Hill raised her concerns, saying the Crosby strategy had failed to capture the real Theresa May. By this point it was too late to change course.
The long hours meant few in the campaign were able to go out for dinner or drinks with friends or partners. There were rumours of office romances starting, and some socialising among staff in the bar of Westminster’s St Ermin’s Hotel, where many of the Tory top brass stayed for the duration.
But just as nobody was formally in charge of the war room, so the party had lost control of the Election agenda. Corbyn was making waves with his anti-austerity policies and May’s personal ratings were in free-fall.
CLOSE CALL: Jeremy Corbyn came within a few seats of winning the keys to No 10