The BBC couldn’t resist repeating the outburst by “Brenda of Bristol” when told that Theresa May had called a snap general election:
“You’re joking. Not another one! Oh, for god’s sake! Honestly, I can’t stand this. There’s too much politics going on at the moment. Why does she need to do it?”
That clip was run on almost every bulletin after the news broke on Tuesday and it was used to good effect on Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday at the beginning of Nick Robinson’s interview with the prime minister.
TV and radio vox pops are usually dull and predictable affairs because people confronted by a microphone in the street prove to be inarticulate and very often, sadly, ill-informed. Their responses rarely represent the opinion of the wider populace, not least because broadcasting balance demands that for every negative there will be a positive.
But Brenda’s contribution, delivered in a delightful Bristolian accent, was so obviously genuine and entertaining that it broke the mould. It rang with authenticity. And I suspect that it did indeed reflect the viewpoint of a considerable portion of the British public, which was echoed by the Daily Mail’s columnist, Richard Littlejohn.
Forget the people though. Editors, whether in broadcasting newsrooms or on newspaper editorial floors, could not conceal their glee. General election campaigns are journalistic heaven for mainstream media.
They provide a daily focus for stories and are guaranteed to generate headlines. They galvanise the reporting staff. They encourage columnists and commentators to speculate and pontificate on a scale that puts their usual speculation and pontification to shame.
Brenda and her ilk may well think otherwise but no broadcaster or newspaper can afford to shirk its public service remit at election time. TV and radio schedules are changed to accommodate expanded news and current affairs programmes. Newspaper editors, despite their concerns about readers’ apathy, are bound to give the election a huge amount of space.
Consider Wednesday’s national titles. The Times devoted its first 13 pages to the announcement plus a leading article and a column by its main political commentator. The Daily Telegraph, with the best headline of the day, “May’s bolt from the blue”, gave it 13 pages, which included three columns and a lengthy leader. The Guardian weighed in with seven pages plus a leading article and the views of two leading columnists.
The tabloids were no slouches either. Daily Mail: 17 pages; The Sun: nine pages; Daily Mirror: eight pages; Daily Express: six pages; and the i: 10 pages. This could be interpreted as overkill. But what’s the point of journalism unless it takes elections seriously?
Then again, amid the straightforward reportage and partisan spinning, there was plenty to smile about, particularly from that wonderfully prolific gang of parliamentary sketch writers who look down, in more ways than one, on the Commons.
On this occasion, they were forced to leave their gallery niche, in order to witness Mrs May’s Downing Street statement. They did not disappoint.
The opening sentence by the Telegraph’s Michael Deacon was brilliant: “Theresa May said she’d made her decision ‘with reluctance’. It was hard to believe. She looked about as reluctant as a pitbull sniffing a pork chop”.
He and his colleagues, just like the rest of us, had been taken completely by surprise. Patrick Kidd, in The Times, noted that “none of us in the press pack had any inkling” until an email arrived to reveal that the prime minister was about to make a statement outside No 10. He wrote:
“What could it be? Were we about to go to war? Had Boris pressed that big red button that says ‘do not push’? Was it Northern Ireland? Or Scotland? Was Larry the Cat unwell? Perhaps Larry wanted to become a dog. All seemed unlikely but no more so than a snap election”.
John Crace, in The Guardian, thought Mrs May had been “blessed with a divine revelation” over Easter urging her to call the election, which suggested that “there are advantages to being a vicar’s child”.
Doubtless, given my experiences of covering every general election since 1964, there will be more humour along the way and, of course, several surprises.
In the heat of battle, despite the best of strategic planning, much can happen. So Mrs May should brace herself, given that she has launched what amounts to a single issue poll.
It is highly unlikely that she will suffer a similar humiliation to the one suffered by her predecessor, Edward Heath, in 1974.
He came a cropper after going to the country on the issue of who governs Britain. Then it was a relatively straightforward matter between two parties with clearly divergent positions.
The press was much more influential in those days when circulations were high and social media did not exist. But the titles that traditionally supported the Conservative party were anything but united behind Mr Heath.
This time, however, while the political split is more fragmented, the majority section of the press that favours the Tories is fervently united behind Mrs May. If there is to be a tipping factor, then that could prove crucial on June 8.
Another consideration is Mrs May’s high risk decision to refuse to take part in televised debates with her opponents. During her interview with Robinson she had me convinced that, whatever transpires, she will not change her mind.
Then I remembered her urging the country during the EU referendum campaign to vote remain. Now she is determined on Brexit.
I also recalled how, over the past couple of months, she has scorned the notion of holding a snap election. Now she has called one.
This lady is for turning and I would not be surprised, should opinion polls move against the Tories after TV debates from which she is absent, if she had second thoughts.
* The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*