Conservative leadership race: how online campaigning became the great disruptor

by Jay Turner | 18th June 2019

The Tory leadership contest is in full swing as MPs continue to whittle down the list of candidates to the final two that will face a vote of the Tory membership. It is clear who the insurgent in the race has been. Step forward International Development Secretary Rory Stewart.

Essentially unknown outside of Westminster until now the former Prisons Minister has come from relative obscurity to disrupt the more established candidates’ battle plans. He was not expected to be a significant presence in the race, yet Matt Hancock has withdrawn and frontrunners Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid are viewed as increasingly unsettled ahead of this afternoon’s second round of voting.

A distinctive character, Rory Stewart has achieved much of this impact through an irreverent and personal campaign, amplified by clever use of online channels.

The last time the Conservative Party held a contested leadership race was 2005. At that time social media was in its infancy – Twitter did not even exist. Since then political parties and candidates have increasingly made use of online campaigning.

Rory Stewart’s campaign is in keeping with this modern trend. His tilt for the Tory leadership eschewed the traditional launch video for a more guerrilla style of walkabouts, impromptu public speaking and multiple, short videos. All posted online and achieving the elusive ‘shareability’ that secures a much greater reach for the message.

Whilst rivals such as Matt Hancock, Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt have all utilised social media – how could they not – Stewart’s efforts are much fresher in comparison.

Most of the contenders have focused their energy on Westminster speeches and traditional media appearances, but Rory Stewart has used his unorthodox online campaign to achieve traction with the wider public.

This has in turn influenced the SW1 commentariat, particularly on Twitter, and given his colleagues pause for thought as they decide who to support.

Stewart has shown that to shake up the pack you need to break out of the traditional campaign template. In the modern age using social media is not enough, you need to offer something interesting and authentic to really benefit from the edge that online can give you.

Still, if he continues to make progress and reaches the final two Rory Stewart will need more than a great online game. The Tory membership are disproportionately older and are less likely to use social media. And after all, Ed Miliband had a successful online campaign during the 2015 General Election but in the end the voters wanted David Cameron to be Prime Minister. With his commanding lead amongst MPs and the membership vote, it will take more than guerrilla campaigning to beat Boris Johnson.

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Jay Turner

Jay is an experienced political campaigner helping clients tell their story to political audiences, and supporting them through parliamentary inquiries, regulatory threats, and reputational challenges.

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