Sajid Javid: ‘We shouldn’t have banged on about Brexit’ | Politics

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We are only a few seconds into our interview with communities secretary Sajid Javid when his irritation at the way the Tories ran their general election campaign earlier this year becomes apparent. Rather than strengthening her mandate, Theresa May’s decision to go to the country backfired appallingly, stripping the Conservatives of their Commons majority and leaving the government, in which Javid is a big player, terribly weakened.

He describes the result as “disappointing”. But such understatement cannot hide what he clearly believes was a disaster that resulted from catastrophic misjudgments by May and her campaign team at every turn. For him the awful result was all the more difficult to take because the omens from local elections just three weeks before had been so good.

“For us, it was the best set of results ever in county elections in terms of the number of councillors and councils we took control of, and even in the metro mayoral elections – four of them Conservative, including [unexpected wins in] the West Midlands and Tees Valley. They were a very good set of results, yet three weeks later we have the general election, a lot of the same people voting, but a very different and, of course, disappointing result. What was it that worked so well just three weeks before?”

Javid does not seek to defend the national campaign at all, nor the prime minister. It was too focused on Brexit, he says, and not enough on more immediate issues that mattered to people. “In the local elections, for example, we left many of our local councillors and campaigners to come up with their local manifestos and focus on the core message of what you could expect from a Conservative council – costing you less, giving you more, backing their community and businesses. That worked well.

“When it got to the general election, in some ways we almost went off message. For example, looking back, we should have talked much more about the economic change we’ve seen in the country in the past seven years – record number of jobs, lowest claimant count in over 40 years, record number of businesses.

“While we were banging on about Brexit, a lot of people were saying, ‘OK, I get that, I know you are going to deliver on Brexit, I know it is not straightforward, but what about housing? What about education? What about transport? What about the health service?’ ”

The cult of personality that was created around May also seems to have grated, misjudging what people want from politicians in election campaigns. The Tory battle bus was emblazoned with the words “Theresa May for Britain” and local candidates were hidden from view, prevented from meeting the media. None of it worked. “When people go to vote still in Britain, they will look at their local representatives, but I don’t think there is a sort of cult of personality politics. Obviously, they want to know who the leader is for each party, but I think there is a lot of identification with their local candidates.”

Theresa May

Theresa May arrives in Manchester for the Conservative party conference. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Other big figures in the party should also have got more of a look-in. “I think they like to see the presentation of the team behind the delivery if they are elected,” says Javid.

As Conservatives gather for their conference in Manchester, Javid is clearly not living in fear of May. Deference to such a weakened leader has gone out of fashion, even among the big hitters in the cabinet. It is pretty much open season now and, like many senior Conservatives, Javid knows the party is in serious trouble. It must do more to attract younger voters, most of whom cannot even bring themselves to consider voting Tory these days.

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