Parties hammer home key messages as polling day nears

7 hours ago

By Henry Zeffman@hzeffmanChief political correspondent
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There’s just three days to go until this general election campaign draws to a close and the fate of Britain’s leading politicians passes to the voters.

This is not a moment where the scope of the campaign suddenly widens. Instead it narrows as the parties – especially the two main parties – hone in on the core messages they hope will appeal to the crucial slices of the British public they need to win.

If you hear Rishi Sunak or Sir Keir Starmer say something today, expect to hear them say it tomorrow and on Wednesday too. This is not a time for variation but for repetition.

So what are those messages? Well, Mr Sunak believes he will still be prime minister by the end of the week. At least that’s what he told Laura Kuenssberg yesterday.

Look at the Conservative campaign as it enters the home stretch, though, and it is undeniably crouched in a defensive posture.

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It is hard to believe that when Prime Minister Sunak walked into the Downing Street rain 40 days ago to announce this general election that he anticipated spending the final three days of the campaign warning of a Labour victory so large that Sir Keir might wield “unchecked” power.

Whatever they say publicly, the way the Conservatives are approaching this week shows that they believe the dire opinion polling is plausible at the very least.

Campaigning in the Midlands today Mr Sunak is warning that, whatever Nigel Farage claims, Reform UK cannot hope to be the true opposition because they “just won’t win enough votes to oppose Labour”.

He is expected to say: “Just imagine that – hundreds and hundreds of Labour MPs opposed by just one, two, three, four, five elected [Reform] MPs.”

Note that this argument takes as a given that there will be hundreds and hundreds of Labour MPs.

That assumption speaks to the complicated multidirectional fight the Conservatives face at the moment: trying to stop voters heading to Labour but also using different arguments to stop other former Conservatives heading to Reform and, in other parts of the country, the Liberal Democrats.

The candidate controversies of recent days as well as Mr Farage’s claim that the west “provoked” the war in Ukraine have at least given the Conservatives something they struggled to find earlier in the campaign – a way to attack Reform UK.

Some Conservative candidates wish they had done so earlier.

That is the public conversation taking place in the Conservative Party with three days to go. Then there is another conversation, which ranges from the semi-public to the private. What next?

In The Telegraph today, Jesse Norman, a former minister standing for re-election, has written an 813-word article about the election.

Not the general election, which in his first line he appears to concede to Labour, but the Conservative leadership election he assumes would follow.

Mr Norman moots the possibility that the role of Conservative Party members should be reduced, and that the leadership election should not be rushed.

Some of Mr Norman’s colleagues are less focused on the process but on the candidates – though that question would be shaped by who is left remaining in parliament on 5 July.

What of Labour?

In one respect Labour’s task is more straightforward. In England at least, it is fighting only in one direction – seeking to win over former Conservative voters. (Although there are some very quiet jitters about possible areas of Reform strength in some Labour seats, especially in South Yorkshire).

In Labour’s campaign they are relieved and pleased that they have made it through the entire campaign with essentially one consistent one-word message: Change.

Note that in the final days the message is being adapted, though, to warn voters that if they want change “you have to vote for it”.

That betrays more than a flicker of concern that some potential Labour voters may see the result as a foregone conclusion and as a result stay at home or vote for another party.

The overwhelming approach is bullish though. For that just look at the fact that Sir Keir kicked off his campaigning today in Hitchin – a part of Hertfordshire which last had a Labour MP six years before Mr Sunak was born.

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Labour has its own semi-public, semi-private conversation bubbling away too. Publicly it is still claiming, as Jon Ashworth did this morning, that the Conservatives could win the general election.

Privately, Labour circles are abuzz with conversations about preparations for government.

This has been the fiefdom of Sue Gray, the chief-of-staff who Sir Keir controversially poached last year from a lifetime in the civil service. After 14 years in opposition, few senior members of the Labour Party, be they MPs or officials, have any experience of being in government – a key reason why Sir Keir hired Ms Gray.

Interestingly, should Labour win Ms Gray appears likely to be joined in Downing Street by Morgan McSweeney, who has run the party’s election campaign.

In that event, expect a potential Labour government to quickly claim that what they have uncovered on the government books is worse than they had expected – an argument the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has pre-emptively questioned.

Labour strategists believe that David Cameron went a long way to securing the Conservatives’ 2015 election victory in the days after he became prime minister in 2010 – when he used the trappings of office to mount a concerted assault on Labour’s record. Expect the same again.

Of course, Labour may not get there. Only postal votes have so far been cast.

But make no mistake – from the way the two main parties are campaigning in these final days, they both believe this is the most plausible scenario.

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