It has been painful for much of this campaign season to observe how badly the Conservatives campaign, and yet how well they still poll. Even assuming the polls are wrong, as they very plausibly may be, how can a campaign that consists of strenuous, bare-faced lying, trolling, gaslighting the electorate and what amounts to shitposting in the Tory-owned press not be falling to pieces?
Yet, something is decidedly up. In the last few days, something has broken down: the apparently seamless circulation of power between CCHQ, the press and the broadcasters. The final straw, apparently, was the decision by senior Tories to dupe senior political journalists into publishing a fake news item through their official Twitter accounts.
The story claimed that a Labour activist had punched Matt Hancock’s special advisor, and there had been an arrest. All that actually happened was that an advisor walked into someone’s outstretched arm. Had there been no one filming when this supposedly happened, the lie would have stood and been widely reported as fact, with sceptical references to "Labour denials". As things stand, it has blown up in their faces. What, finally, went right?
The Tories began this campaign knowing that they would probably keep their 2017 vote share, provided they were aggressively pro-Brexit. Their main problem was that to get to election day, they had to sit through a six-week campaign during which they could lose ground, and Labour could use its ground army to rebuild its vote. They had to have a campaign without having a campaign. They needed to soak up attention and prevent Labour from setting the agenda.
The party made a few big mistakes in this respect early on. They let Jacob Rees-Mogg out in public. They agreed to two head-to-head debates with Corbyn, when only Corbyn was likely to gain. They spent too much time talking about Labour’s agenda and preferred subjects, thus tying themselves into knots defending billionaires or denouncing "broadband communism".
However, after a couple of weeks their strategy began to look, briefly, more coherent. They had deliberately embarked on a pattern of wild lies and provocations. It wasn’t simply a case of falsehoods – that Labour would spend £1.2 trillion, that they were going to build 40 new hospitals, or that there would be an extra murder every week under Labour. There is nothing new in the Tories making stuff up. What was new was that they stood by their lies even when challenged with the patently obvious truth, in defiance of all logic.
Tory ministers and spokespeople were sent out to gaslight the public. "It's 50,000 more nurses," they would insist to incredulous interviewers over Tory promises to recruit 31,000 nurses, before blaming said interviewers for being "confused". "Record levels of investment in the NHS," they would say, blithely steamrollering anyone who pointed out that their spending pledge was lower than the historical average. For much of the campaign, they’ve succeeded at what the journalist Peter Pomerantsev calls "censorship through noise": a massive derailing operation to make people cynical, frustrate serious debate and demoralise the other side.
They also did their best to sabotage debates where they could. Johnson "looked bad" dodging the Channel 4 climate debate. However, if this election campaign has proved one thing, it is that the optics are no longer as decisive as they might have been when Westminster was ruled by a centre-seeking consensus. Johnson’s supporters largely don’t prioritise climate change, and pulling out of that debate sucked oxygen out of the thing. At the same time, Michael Gove was sent to troll and divert attention. Again, it was ugly, but it had a purpose. The same approach was applied to the Andrew Neil interview, to the Channel 4 home affairs debate, the "anything but Brexit" debate and even the gently good-humoured Victoria Derbyshire show. In the few interviews Johnson has done, he has dicked his interlocutor around, aggressively gesticulating and filling the air with as much repetitive noise as possible, making sure nothing of much substance is said.
In doing all this, the Tories have exploited not only their supporters in the Conservative press, but also the deference of top political editors and news executives. The Tories are learning how to game the media, just as Trump did. They know journalism is underfunded. They know political editors are busy cultivating personal celebrity on Twitter. They know they hanker for updates, much as a young Michael Gove once hankered for a line. And they are by no means averse to triviality – as exemplified by BBC presenter Emma Barnett asking Labour’s Angela Rayner, "Would you nationalise sausages?" while talking about meat consumption and climate change. In exchange for being treated like this, senior journalists practice a spaniel-eyed credulity toward "Number Ten sources" and "senior Tories", whose claims they evidently publish with little scrutiny.
It is telling that the only two occasions on which Johnson has been seriously challenged is when he was interviewed by two young local journalists. On both occasions, he was left looking foolish. That tells us a lot about how tame Westminster journalism is.
Indeed, look a bit closer at the incident that precipitated the Tories’ brazen "fake news" gambit. Joe Pike, a reporter from Grimsby, asked the Prime Minister about a four-year-old boy who had to be treated on the floor of a hospital, on a bed of coats, because of underfunding. He tried to show Johnson the picture on his smartphone. Johnson bulldozed over the question and ignored the image, sticking to his rehearsed messages: flooding the zone with shit, as his intellectual confederate Steve Bannon would have it. More telling is his nerve in snatching the journalist’s phone and pocketing it. One really wonders whether a more senior Westminster journalist would have calmly challenged Johnson in the way that Pike did.
Why are the Tories doing this? They’re in crisis. Beyond Brexit, their programme is brutally unpopular. They’re breaking the old rules of communication because they have to, and because they can. But mugging off the public was always a high-risk strategy. Many people hate being treated that way. And now it’s blown up in their faces. And in so doing, it has exposed how mutually dependent, and complicit, senior journalists and the political establishment really are.