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Study Notes

General Election 2017: Leadership, Image and Policy: the Conservative Party Campaign

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 30 Oct 2018

This study note on the General Election of June 2017 focuses on key features of the Conservative Party campaign.


Theresa May came to power in 2016 in the wake of the EU Referendum. The surprise Leave vote led to Prime Minister David Cameron resigning only a year after gaining the majority government he so wanted. A number of figures from Cameron’s era either resigned or were not chosen for positions by May, who appointed a number of high-profile Leave-campaigning Conservatives to her Cabinet. May herself had campaigned (somewhat quietly) to Remain. Despite regularly suggesting that she would serve the full term and not hold an election until the UK had left the EU, a number of factors persuaded her to change her mind and hold a snap election in June 2017.


First elected an MP in 1997, Theresa May had been a key figure in David Cameron’s cabinets and while some former colleagues described her as a “bloody difficult woman” (Ken Clarke) she was generally welcomed as a safe pair of hands to guide the UK through the tricky Brexit period.

Initially she was presented as a strong leader, with comparisons made with Thatcher and references to a new “Iron Lady”. It is also worth recalling that despite various politicians considering replacing Cameron as leader (including Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Andrea Leadsom) ultimately May became Conservative leader unopposed. Her first Prime Minister’s Questions performances were widely praised and early approval ratings were very high. Indeed, just before the 2017 General Election campaign Theresa May had the highest ever recorded net satisfaction rating for a prime minister; a month after the election she had the lowest ever, for that period in an electoral cycle. The rapid change tells us something about the scale of the turnaround in the public’s opinion on May as a leader.

It’s hard to pinpoint when the change in public opinion about Theresa May began. Calling the snap election itself, while praised in much of the right-wing press (especially when she came out promising to “fight for Britain” against various Brexit wreckers) there was some concern that she had said she would not hold an election and appeared to have just changed her mind on a walking holiday.

It was then her campaigning style itself that damaged her popularity, as it appeared aloof and highly-controlled. She refused to join in any of the televised debates with Jeremy Corbyn or other leaders. (In fact, Gordon Brown remains the only Prime Minister to agree to televised debates with other party leaders, in 2010, perhaps because there seemed to be little to lose and it was worth a go!) From having been a strong media performer in the past, handling many difficult interviews, May seemed to really struggle during this campaign. However, it was not just Theresa May’s personal handling of the campaign which saw the polls shift.


The Conservative Party has been seen to have an internal party problem in relation to Europe for many years and yet, at the start of the 2017 campaign, it appeared to be more of a problem for Labour than the Conservatives. Whilst Labour had spent much of the previous year dealing with shadow cabinet rebellions and leadership elections, a post-referendum cabinet seemed quite united in the Conservative Party. There were some critical ‘noises off’ from the likes of former Chancellor George Osborne (now editor of the London Evening Standard) but generally the party managed to present a reasonably united image. There were, however, divisions behind the scenes about some of Theresa May’s advisors that became more public as the campaign progressed.

Theresa May once famously said that the Conservative Party had been seen as “the nasty party”. This was a show of support for David Cameron’s efforts to change the party’s image. And yet, the party struggled to shake off allegations that it only cared about the well-off, got its priorities wrong and was complacent about some of the big issues of the day, such as NHS funding and the concerns of young people.

Policy and Manifesto

This was an election of the Conservatives’ choosing and timing, but they intended to make it mostly an election about Brexit. It was, though, also an opportunity to give Theresa May a personal mandate for some of her political priorities. The manifesto contained pledges including:

  • Means testing of winter fuel payments
  • Changes to funding of social care (this policy was labelled “the dementia tax” and there was a u-turn on it shortly after the manifesto launch, although May insisted “nothing had changed”).
  • A large expansion of “free schools” – particularly selective schools: a new generation of grammar schools.
  • Free school meals for infants to be means tested, but then replaced with free breakfasts.
  • Scrapping the “triple lock” which guaranteed no increase in national insurance, VAT or income tax (although there was a pledge not to increase VAT)
  • Commitments to raise the tax-free personal allowance and the threshold for the top rate of tax.
  • Pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands
  • Eradicate the deficit by 2025
  • A free vote on whether to bring back fox hunting
  • An energy price cap.

A number of these were eye-catching, but the pledges could be divided up into those that were quite unpopular (“dementia tax”, removing triple lock, removing free school meals, means-tested winter fuel payments), divisive (new grammar schools, bringing back fox hunting), affected relatively few people (raising the threshold for the top rate of income tax) and those that had been promised before (energy cap – pledged by Ed Miliband and accused of being Marxist by Cameron; eliminating the deficit: many targets had been set and abandoned before).

Overall the reaction to the manifesto was broadly negative. Surprisingly, the group that seemed to be most hit by the manifesto was better-off pensioners, who might be seen as the Conservative’s core vote. Jeremy Corbyn clearly saw an opportunity to take some votes off the Conservatives in this section of society that typically has a high turnout, accusing May of “hitting older people with a classic Nasty Party triple whammy.”

With hindsight the bad politics of the manifesto was probably a result of a degree of complacency about the election result. A huge poll lead for the Conservatives at the start of the election and a widely-held assumption (among the commentariat at least) that Jeremy Corbyn was “unelectable” meant that the manifesto was seen as an opportunity to give the government more room for manoeuvre in future budgets as well as allowing Theresa May to pursue some personal projects (such as new grammar schools and bringing back fox hunting). As it turned out this was an error.

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