Tom Peterkin: Cautious in Crathes, then bullish with Brussels

The Prime Minister has defied expectations with her stinging attack on EU bureaucrats says Tom Peterkin

The Prime Ministers strictly controlled first foray north of the Border during the general election campaign was a prime example of her risk aversion. Picture: PA

Something must be afoot when your duties as a political reporter require you to take the office Corsa on a magical mystery tour.

Under strict instructions to head to Aberdeenshire – precise destination unknown – I whizzed past the Stracathro trucker service station.

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The Corsa was bounding along nicely when shortly afterwards I broke off the main road to head for the climb and hurl round the hairpin bends of the Cairn O’Mount pass. This was in danger of becoming exciting.

Just a few hours before setting off on Saturday morning, I had been briefed on my unexpected mission. The details, however, were sparse. The reason for the trip was to cover the Prime Minister’s first visit to Scotland of the general election campaign. But the location in Aberdeenshire would not be disclosed until I was on the road. It all seemed a bit cloak and dagger.

As I headed north I learned that Theresa May would be addressing a “rally” at Crathes Village Hall, just outside Banchory.

Also heading for this rather quaint rendez-vous were a couple of hundred Conservative activists desperate to fly the flag for the Scottish Tory revival and to salute Mrs May in the Tory target seat of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.

The enthusiasm of those who attended was more evidence of the Scottish Tory revival. But this was not a tough audience for the Prime Minister, on what was an incredibly tightly controlled visit.

Of course there are all sorts of legitimate security reasons for keeping details of official visits under wraps.

But the hermetically sealed nature of the Prime Minister’s visit did seem remarkable. Exposure to anyone who might not share her vision of a “strong and stable” Conservative Government was strictly limited.

Press who squeezed into the village hall had to submit questions in advance and only certain media outlets were given the chance to put a question to the Prime Minister.

Being crafty souls, journalists attempted to outfox the PM’s handlers by submitting easy questions then veering off-script into trickier waters when it came to their turn to question the Prime Minister.

Questions that did not chime with Mrs May’s view of the world (e.g. “was she denying the will of Holyrood by delaying indyref2”) were met with a chorus of boos.

A canvassing session was carefully choreographed for the cameras, from which other press were excluded. Hilariously, this attempt to give the impression that the Prime Minister is unafraid of pressing the flesh was so well controlled that none of the doors she knocked yielded an encounter with an actual member of the public.

This reluctance to deal with the great unwashed does not reflect well on the Prime Minister. One can understand that Prime Ministers seeking re-election want to avoid the banana skins that are liberally strewn across every campaign trail. Just ask Gordon Brown about Gillian Duffy or present Ed Miliband with a bacon sandwich.

Unconvincing when it comes to thinking on her feet, Mrs May’s strategy is to minimise risk by minimising contact with a critical public and the written press. Instead she is relying on broadcast coverage that shows her in front of a mass of adoring activists as she hammers home a simple message.

But no campaign can be risk free. The more she is shielded more from the public, the more credence it gives to the idea that Mrs May is uncomfortable when it comes to dealing with the unexpected. But that is nothing to the gamble that Mrs May took yesterday afternoon when she launched her stinging attack on “Brussels bureaucrats” after the dissolution of parliament.

Back in her comfort zone (making a defiant set-piece speech outside Number 10), Mrs May showed she is unafraid of attacking her EU neighbours as Britain enters the hugely challenging Brexit negotiations.

Other Tories like the Brexit secretary David Davis may have been prepared to take an emollient approach to leaks from a Downing Street dinner with EC president Jean-Claude Juncker and Brexit negotiator Michel Bernier.

But having initially attempted to laugh off suggestions that the Brexit negotiations were proving extremely difficult, Mrs May came out with guns blazing.

The Prime Minister’s claims that Brussels was trying to influence the result of the general election with threats caught everyone by surprise. By attacking those she has to deal with during the talks, she risks upsetting the Brexit negotiations. Her intervention also leaves her open to attack from her opponents.

To borrow a phrase used by Mrs May, they also show just how “bloody difficult” these talks might end up being.

The political calculation made by the Prime Minister and her advisers is that - despite all this - her intervention can pay dividends when the country goes to the polls on 8 June.

Part of the message is pitched at Leave voters, who she is seeking to impress by refusing to be mucked about by European Union officials and politicians. Last night, Leave groups in favour of a hard Brexit were signalling their approval.

Another calculation is that this will play into the Conservative narrative that Jeremy Corbyn is too weak a politician to fight for the UK’s interests and only Mrs May can be trusted to deliver a decent Brexit deal.

But to some it might seem ironic that the Prime Minister who was so risk adverse in Banchory is prepared to take such a gamble with Brussels.