Robert Peston

Boris Johnson’s election has got off to a dreadful start

Boris Johnson's election has got off to a dreadful start
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The cliche, from my memory already creaking under the political strain, is that oppositions never win elections, governments lose them.

Well this election is only a few hours old and Boris Johnson and his team – who let's not forget – have been gagging for this election for months are doing a spectacular job of mucking it up.

There's been Jacob Rees-Mogg and Andrew Bridgen engaging in a humiliating double act of insensitivity towards the victims of the Grenfell tragedy.

There's been the Tory candidate in the Gower revealed to have said benefit claimants should be put down.

There's been the pressure on the Welsh secretary Alun Cairns not to stand in the election because of his erstwhile support for a former aide who has been accused of sabotaging a rape trial.

There's been the furore over Conservative Central HQ editing an interviewing with Labour's Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer, such that the story has become one about whether the Tories are spreading fake news rather than what the Tories would prefer which is whether Labour's approach to Brexit is coherent.

And then there has been the chancellor Sajid Javid being slapped down by the Cabinet Secretary for wanting to publish Treasury officials calculations of the cost of Labour's spending plans, in what looked like the misuse of public resources for election propaganda.

Oh, and then there's been Johnson's refusal to publish an official report into Putin's interference in the UK – which has promoted all sorts of conspiracy theories about what the PM may have to hide.

Let's be clear, none of this may be cutting through to anyone but obsessives like you and me. And polling day itself is weeks away.

But coherence, morale and momentum matter in campaigns. And they tend to self-reinforce, in a virtuous or vicious way.

And what may be much more serious for the Tories is less the gaffes and more that their messaging has been all over the shop.

My clear understanding from those controversial "Downing Street Sources" in the past couple of months was that the election would be exclusively about "getting Brexit done", with a bit of window dressing of more money for schools, hospitals and the police,

And that would be the whole thing.

But in the past days and hours pretty much all I've heard from the Tories is "Jews will leave Britain if Corbyn wins", "Corbyn is too cosy with Putin", "Corbyn doesn't believe in profit", "a vote for the Lib Dems or SNP is a vote for Corbyn", and so on.

Maybe the Tories have secret polling to show that the best way to win the election is to vilify Labour's leader.

But the lesson of Theresa May's ill-fated 2017 election was that demonising Corbyn deified him amongst his supporters, felt over-the-top to neutrals and simply shored up a bunch of Tory supporters who were never going to vote Labour.

And a prime minister who owns a closet full of skeletons risks legitimising a race-to-the-bottom in ad hominem attacks.

To state the obvious, it is early days.

And Boris Johnson is not in fact launching the Tories' official campaign till 7.30pm tonight.

Perhaps after that there will be shape and discipline to their game. But with Labour's ground and digital game looking professional, focussed and ruthless, the Tories may well have a bigger problem than they may choose to admit.

Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his ITV news blog

Written byRobert Peston

Robert Peston is a British journalist, presenter, and founder of the education charity Speakers for Schools. He is the Political Editor of ITV News and host of the weekly political discussion show Peston.

Topics in this articlePoliticsbrexituk politics