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

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - Comment - By TIM ROSS and TOM McTAGUE

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

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