Gaffes decide election?

Will the next government be the one which screws up the least?

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What effect do gaffes have on an election result?

By Joe Harker

Campaigning for the December 12 general election has begun and the Conservatives have already landed themselves in hot water.

Jacob Rees-Mogg got into trouble for his "common sense" comments about Grenfell, while Andrew Bridgen disastrously attempted to defend his fellow Tory.

Alun Cairns became the first cabinet minister to resign during an election campaign over claims he knew about an attempt to sabotage a rape trial.

The party shared footage of Sir Keir Starmer answering questions on Labour's Brexit policy which had been doctored to make it look as though the shadow Brexit secretary had failed to answer a question put to him, with the Tories accused of being "misleading and unfair".

Conservative party chairman James Cleverly did not show up for an interview with Kay Burley of Sky News and she ran through the list of questions she would have asked him had he been present, including their blocking of a report on potential Russian interference in the Brexit referendum and Rees-Mogg's aforementioned Grenfell comments.

There's just under five weeks to go until the general election and the Tories are already having a torrid time, but will this make any impact on the outcome of the vote?

The Claim:

John Rentoul of The Independent writes that the first thing to do is define what exactly constitutes a gaffe.

He believes the word "gaffe" is too trivial to describe the series of early disasters the Tories have had on their campaign trail. These are not gaffes, they are something more serious.

Rentoul argues that the most effective incidents for swaying public opinion are the ones which appear to reveal the true nature of the politicians involved.

Gordon Brown's "bigoted woman" comments which were captured when he thought his microphone was off were a disaster as people thought they had been given a glimpse into what a politician was really thinking behind all the spin.

The information age adds another dimension to mistakes and foul ups. While previously a gaffe might have been on the news a few times and discussed in the papers now there are video clips being tweeted around which will not go away.

There are many who will take the muck politicians create for themselves and throw it at them until it sticks. In former elections gaffes might have been forgotten as time went on, even if it was because new mistakes distracted from them, now there are thousands who will dedicate themselves to ensuring nobody forgets.

The Counter Claim:

The current screw ups from the Tories will have caused them problems but their most harsh critics are the parts of the electorate which weren't going to vote for them anyway.

A bad start to the campaign doesn't mean things will end badly, nor does it mean voters will turn away from the party. Five weeks is a long time in politics and there are plenty of speeches, debates and interviews to come.

People vote on two big principles, how they fundamentally feel about the politicians and parties they are casting a vote for, and the unpredictable events which occur during an election campaign.

The public votes with their gut and are willing to forgive much from a candidate or party they have a good feeling about, while offering little quarter to those they don't have a high opinion of.

It takes a big "unpredictable event" to shift people's gut feeling and ultimately change the way they cast a vote but it can happen. The Tories have a strong lead now but that could change if an unforseen disaster of large enough proportions strikes them.

The Facts:

A matter like this is very subjective and it's hard to measure the exact impact a serious error during a campaign can have, but it would obviously be better for political parties not to screw up so much when they're asking the country to pick them to be in charge for the next five years.

It's hard to predict which gaffes spiral into moments that can define an election but generally they are ones which reinforce opinions the public already held. If the public already thinks Jacob Rees-Mogg is out of touch with ordinary people then his comments on Grenfell will go some way to confirming their suspicions and potentially tipping their vote.

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Have gaffes and mistakes ever changed the course of an election?

Most missteps in election campaigns seem to excite journalists more than the general public. Boris Johnson's election campaign has got off to a terrible start, but we should recall the Daily Mail 's "most disastrous few hours in campaign history" from the last election.

That was because Jeremy Corbyn's car ran over someone's foot on the way into the meeting to sign off Labour's manifesto, which had been leaked overnight. Only dedicated collectors of political ephemera remember the events of that day, which not only did Labour's standing no harm, but actually boosted the party's popularity.

The leak of the manifesto meant that journalists reported what was in it without any of the distractions of media questions to Corbyn on the day of the formal launch - and many of the policies turned out to be more popular than expected.

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Sharing the full story, not just the headlines

So the first question to ask about presentational disasters is, what is a "gaffe" anyway? It seems disrespectful to apply the word to Jacob Rees-Mogg's suggestion that Grenfell Tower residents should have shown enough "common sense" to ignore the fire brigade's advice. It seems trivialising to use it to describe the political fallout from a rape trial, which has led to the first resignation of a cabinet minister, Alun Cairns, the Wales secretary, during an election campaign.

And it isn't the right word to describe the misleading editing of a video of Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary - the third negative story to hit the Conservative campaign on day one.

Which suggests that such stories cannot simply be lumped into a single category and measured by counting them. Each story has to be judged separately: is it a mistake that will quickly be forgotten; is it a revealing embarrassment that will influence the voters; or is it a serious misjudgment that could make a difference to the election outcome?

Sometimes a poor choice of words is remembered by historians, as when Winston Churchill said in the 1945 election that Labour would need "some sort of Gestapo" to implement its policies. But it is doubtful whether it had much effect on the voting.

On several occasions words that were not intended for public consumption caused problems. Oliver Letwin, when he was shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, had to go into hiding for most of the 2001 election campaign after he suggested a Tory government would make deeper cuts than in the manifesto.

Gordon Brown suffered worse embarrassment as prime minister when his comment about Gillian Duffy, a voter, being "some bigoted woman" was picked up by the microphone still attached to his lapel.

Both times, the private words spoke volumes about the politician and their party, and helped the voters to form a fuller view of the contest.

Which could not be said for such distractions as Piers Merchant, the Tory MP who was photographed kissing a female friend in a public park at the start of the 1997 campaign, or the one day in the dull 2001 campaign when something happened - namely John Prescott, deputy prime minister, punching someone who hit him with an egg.

The definitive "gaffe" was the multilayered disaster at the centre of Theresa May's campaign in 2017. The dementia tax was a mistake, but it wasn't just a verbal slip. It was a carefully considered disaster, compounded by a partial U-turn and by the prime minister's defensiveness: "Nothing has changed; nothing has changed."

That was such a full-spectrum disaster, reinforcing negative perceptions of the Conservative Party, that it undoubtedly contributed to May's loss of seats. Bad though the start of Johnson's campaign has been, none of it looks as fundamental as that - except for the feeling that there may be worse stories yet to come.

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