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Boris Johnson's Campaign Plans An Immigration And Crime Blitz As They Fear Corbyn Will Close The Gap

The mother of ‘Baby P’, Tracey Connelly, is said to be up for parole during the election campaign — and the Tories can be expected to use the case to make the argument for a tougher justice system, and accuse Corbyn of being soft on crime.

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Boris Johnson launches the Conservative Party manifesto on Sunday with his campaign strategists preparing a media blitz on immigration and crime, amid fears that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour could be set for a bounce in the polls next week.

After what looked like it could be an extremely tricky week for the Conservative campaign, with the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifesto launches coming off the back of bad news stories on hospitals, flooding, and a shocking fire in Bolton, Johnson’s aides are quietly pleased with how the last few days have played out.

The Prince Andrew scandal and a row about Tory online dirty tricks overshadowed much of the substance of the week, feeding into what Johnson’s team believes is key to his route to victory: keeping Labour’s domestic agenda out of the news by avoiding fights on Corbyn’s turf and starting other rows on ground more favourable to the Tories.

The reasoning behind this somewhat cautious strategy is partly obvious: Johnson’s party is ahead in the polls and needs to hold steady to win. But there are also mounting concerns on the Tory campaign that Corbyn will close the gap in the next few days as Remain-backing voters switch from the Lib Dems to Labour.

The squeeze on the Lib Dem vote, plus Jo Swinson’s admission this week that she is not a realistic candidate for prime minister and could prop up a Tory or Labour government after the election, is seen in Conservative HQ as a huge potential gamechanger.

Tory aides believe that pro-EU Lib Dem voters who previously indicated support for the party will migrate to Labour as a consequence of Swinson’s dwindling campaign.

They are braced for a narrowing in the polls next week, which they say will be exaggerated by last week’s polls painting a generous picture of the Tory lead following Nigel Farage’s decision to stand down Brexit Party candidates in Tory-held seats.

The polls are broadly on track with where they were at this stage in the 2017 election campaign, before the wheels came off for Theresa May and she squandered her lead to end up in a hung parliament.

A shift of just a few points one way would mean Johnson is in danger of finding himself in a similar position. A shift of a few points the other way and he could end up with a healthy majority. A Survation constituency poll in Labour-held Great Grimsby that found incumbent Mel Onn was at risk of losing votes to the Brexit Party, thereby turning the seat Tory, was seen as a significant sign that Farage could be helping the Tories break the so-called ‘Red Wall’.

The risk of the polls tightening is why Johnson’s campaign is planning to double down on what it perceives as Corbyn’s weakness on immigration and crime.

The mother of ‘Baby P’, Tracey Connelly, is said to be up for parole during the election campaign — and the Tories can be expected to use the case to make the argument for a tougher justice system, and accuse Corbyn of being soft on crime.

Weaponising one of Britain’s most infamous child deaths for political ends at the height of an election campaign would be highly controversial, but it would focus attention on a policy area where the Tories believe they are strong and Labour is weak.

Meanwhile, the Tories are responding to Labour’s attempts to make the election about the NHS and public services by seeking to link these issues to immigration, a source said.

Last week, when it was revealed that A&E waiting times in England had reached their worst level on record, the Conservatives spent the day attacking Labour for being soft on immigration. Voters in focus groups organised by the Tories have consistently blamed pressures on the NHS and other public services on immigration from the EU.

Senior Tories believe they have had some success with their attacks on Corbyn, pointing to the Labour leader’s interview with Andrew Marr last weekend and Laura Kuenssberg on Thursday being dominated by the topic.

Everything about Johnson’s campaign has become about eating up days where things can go wrong, taking attention away from Labour’s attempts to shift the conversation towards its own much more detailed and radical domestic agenda, and trying to keep the polls steady.

That’s why Tory strategists were relaxed about the 24-hour furore over their Twitter account following the ITV debate on Tuesday night.

The campaign’s two young social media strategists, Sean Topham, 28, and Ben Guerin, 24, who were brought in from New Zealand to punch up the Tories’ digital output for the election, had changed the name of the party’s official press office Twitter account from “CCHQ Press” to “factcheckUK”, replacing the Tory logo with an impartial-looking tick.

The attempt to mislead voters into thinking a Tory account was an independent fact-checker was widely condemned — including by Conservative commentators — and became the most-viewed story on the BBC News website the next day. But Tory aides were amused at the response. Dominic Cummings sat watching Johnson’s potentially perilous showdown with Corbyn — widely seen as the most risky moment of the Tory campaign so far — the picture of zen in a tracksuit as he sought respite from a bad back.

One Tory campaign official told BuzzFeed News that the row about the account, which they argued would not change a single voter’s mind, had blown up attempts by the Liberal Democrats to secure news coverage ahead of their manifesto launch on Wednesday. They found it particularly funny that “60 seconds’ work” had managed to dominate a day of coverage on Twitter, broadcast and news websites, whether by accident or design.

A second campaign official said they expected the furore to have had greater consequences: they were surprised the CCHQ Press account was not banned by Twitter.

The following day, during Labour’s manifesto launch, the Tories launched a website — Labourmanifesto.co.uk — parodying Corbyn’s blueprint for the country, and bought online adverts so the site appeared on pro-Labour websites. When the existence of the parody website was written up by the Guardian, Tory aides WhatsApped each other the link with glee.

While some found the stunts an immature attempt to troll opponents and others said they were dangerous new low in an age of online disinformation, Topham and Guerin have been praised internally for their work. Those running the Tory campaign are relaxed at what they see as something that will have no bearing on the election result drawing media attention away from their opponents’ domestic policy offers. “It’s good to get inside their heads,” a source said.

The strategy of looking for anything and everything that distracts from the opposition parties’ domestic offers is why Tory aides have welcomed Prince Andrew’s two very public interventions over the last week.

Each time there is a development in the story about the Duke of York, news coverage is wiped out for 24 hours and it becomes impossible for opposition parties to seize the day, or for the Tories to lose it.

Last Saturday night, the Duke of York’s interview with Emily Maitlis received blanket coverage on news channels, pushing Corbyn’s Marr interview the following morning down the running order.

Andrew’s decision on Wednesday to step down from his royal duties — announced minutes after the Lib Dem manifesto launch — took another evening’s coverage away from the opposition.

“He’s clearly one of us,” joked a Tory official.


Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Alex Wickham at alex.wickham@buzzfeed.com.

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