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Four Public Affairs General Election update – 12 May

It started out as a quiet week. The campaign had fallen into familiar rhythms: Theresa May appears at a factory in target seat X and talks to a crowd of candidates; Jeremy Corbyn appears in safe seat Y and addresses a crowd of the party faithful; Tim Farron sails around the South West on a hovercraft and gets shouted at. However, election campaigns rarely remain that simple. By the end of the week Labour’s entire manifesto had been leaked to the newspapers, Jeremy Corbyn had run over a cameraman and Theresa May appeared on the One Show discussing her bins. Less than four few weeks to go!

Campaigning like it’s 1979

After the political world stopped to observe the 20th anniversary of Labour’s victory in the 1997 election, politics seemed to return to the 1970s this week. A draft copy of Labour’s manifesto appeared in both the Telegraph and the Mirror on Wednesday night, hours before it was due to be reviewed and signed off by the party hierarchy. Conservatives immediately pounced on some of the more eye-catching promises in the draft, including proposals to renationalise the energy sector and the railways, while restoring trade union powers. According to May’s campaign, it showed Labour were “taking Britain back to the 1970s”. Many suggested the manifesto was a re-run of the left wing platform of Michael Foot in 1983 – famously dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”.

For Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters though, the leak was almost a success. The unconventional manner of its release guaranteed it media coverage. Polls also show some of Labour’s proposals are individually popular with the public, although they don’t much like the package or what it says about the messenger. Corbyn’s campaign had faced accusations of simply reheating Ed Miliband’s platform from two years ago. The draft proposals have put paid to that idea and allow the electorate to judge the undiluted Corbynite agenda.

Theresa May’s campaign remains remarkably light on policy, but the Conservatives tried a few old school proposals of their own this week. On top of the much-discussed return of grammar schools and selective education, May suggested that she would allow a free vote on the return of unrestricted fox hunting. Although a Conservative landslide might make the repeal of the Hunting Act seem inevitable, it was urban Tory MPs who blocked Cameron’s attempt, so the new intake may yet surprise the Prime Minister.

Meet the Mays

Accused of not facing enough media scrutiny, the Prime Minister took to BBC 1 for a high-stakes political interview on Tuesday night. Andrew Marr? No, that was last Sunday. Andrew Neill? Not likely. It was the One Show with Alex Jones and Matt Baker.

Theresa May appeared on the red couch with her husband Philip, in his first broadcast interview. It was a fairly sedate appearance.  Theresa and Philip’s suggestion that there were “girls jobs and boys jobs” in the home prompted a little controversy, but overall the couple came across as you might expect – a slightly awkward but fairly relatable middle-aged couple, clearly devoted to one another. A ‘strong and stable’ marriage, you might say. Jeremy Corbyn is due to make his own appearance on the One Show before the end of the campaign, but his wife declined the invitation.

The prosecution rests

A snap election prompts snap theories. One of the wilder efforts suggested May’s decision was an attempt to somehow cover up charges of electoral fraud relating to the 2015 campaign. Around 30 Conservative MPs were being investigated over suggestions they had broken election spending limits by incorrectly allocating local spending as part of the national campaign. That theory died this week, when Crown Prosecution Service announced that no prosecutions would be brought.

The Battle Bus spending debacle remains murky. The cleared candidates were found to have acted in good faith, but Conservative high command was at fault and had already been issued with a record breaking £70,000 fine. The remaining case, relating to hotel bills for the close-fought campaign against Nigel Farage in South Thanet, could still cause problems before polling day. One of May’s chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy, was intimately involved in the campaign there, adding to the potential embarrassment. 

Seats to watch – Newport East and Newport West

The Labour Party won a majority of both seats and votes in Wales at every general election for the last century. Recent polling suggests the Conservatives could be ahead on votes for the first time since the 1850s and on their way to historic gains. The two Newport constituencies have been Labour heartlands for decades – could they go blue in 2017?

Newport East has been Labour since the seat was created in 1983, while octogenarian Paul Flynn has held Newport West since 1987. The two seats had respective majorities of 13% and 9% in 2015, so Labour would normally expect to hold both comfortably. However, these high percentages mask a far weaker positon. The Conservatives were just 3,500 votes behind Flynn last time around and Labour lost ground to both Tories and independent candidates in last week’s local elections. Theresa May herself has been to Newport to campaign – a sign that the Conservatives are putting time and resources into winning.

A loss for Labour in either seat would be a sign of a party in serious trouble. Two Conservative gains here would put Theresa May on course for a huge win. 

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