The Tories know this. They become their sharpest and most self-aware when an election is in play. The return of Lynton Crosby to the fold, now "Sir" in recognition of the scurrilous campaign he ran in 2015, provides advance notice of what to expect. Smears of leading Labour figures, the ceaseless opposition of Labour chaos to Tory stability, scapegoating and fear-mongering over immigrants, nonsense about public spending, and, latterly, the need for a strong hand to see down the dastardly Eurocrats in the Brexit negotiations. A recipe for the worst in living memory, the only saving grace this general election has is its tight timescale. And so, as far as electoral politics go, the Tory task is a simple one. Maintain the coalition corralled by 2015's fear and loathing, scoop up the returning UKIP vote and strike just enough of a One Nation pose to grab disaffected Labour, and job done. The LibDems might take back a few seats that fell to the Tories, but the sacrifice will be worth the pick ups they expect elsewhere.
We'll see these attacks when they arrive, but foremost in CCHQ's mind is ensuring the wheels don't career off the wagon. This is difficult when their best card is their biggest weakness. Theresa May, in some respects, is the perfect candidate. Throughout the Dave/Osborne years, she was an absent presence, a shadowy figure who sat at the Home Office and let the toffs get on with fronting up the government. Where she did court controversy, as with the racist van wheeze, liberal public opinion got indignant but it enhanced her standing with the withering Tory grassroots and she emerged unscathed. Her coronation after the joke of last year's Conservative leadership contest meant she evaded scrutiny of her record and the policy platform she favoured, and so when she took to the podium outside 10 Downing Street and delivered her Ed Miliband speech, for most people it was the first time they'd properly seen her. And so an address that few, in the abstract, could disagree with, a politician feted as a "grown-up", and a country in the biggest hole its has ever dug for itself, May presented as a figure that all kinds of hope could be projected onto. This was also a very favourable contrast to Jeremy Corbyn's person, who through a mix of missteps, internal sabotage and the worst coverage a Labour leader has ever attracted, was (and is) cast as a figure who epitomises the crisis of politics.
At her introduction as the new Prime Minister, May was therefore something of a Tony Blair figure, and it's no accident that she's running a 1997-style campaign. By that, I mean while the Tories are ahead in the polls by the sorts of margins New Labour commanded, they are hypersensitive to anything that could go wrong. With Blair, that was mostly at the level of policy, which was why anything smacking of "old" Labour - trade unions, the 's' word - were expunged from the campaign lexicon. It's different with the Tories this time, as May doubles up as their biggest weakness. Anyone knows that at Prime Minister's Questions, more often than not she is left looking robotic, dithery, shifty, and unable to think on her feet. If points scored at the weekly ding-dong translated into points on opinion polls, Labour would walk the election. However, it is a minority pursuit and so the confected assumption of May's competence and maturity remains untroubled. Tory objective number one is to maintain that standing, therefore no leaders' debates. It's not that they fear Jeremy Corbyn would be able to turn it around on the basis of a couple of set piece events, but that she would stand utterly exposed as hapless. If, after all, she can't beat the Labour leader in a debate, how can she negotiate a decent Brexit deal with hard nosed folks across the Channel? It also explains the difference between the style of the two emerging campaigns. While Jez held a rally (of course) and took awkward questions, May helicoptered to a golf club the other end of the country for the softest of launches with tame Tory councillors and assorted lickspittles. No journos, no members of the public. Crosby's nightmare is to have her cornered and expected to answer questions where "we're spending record amounts" won't do as an answer. Their strategy has to be based around keeping her away from the public. There is nothing to be gained from engaging with them, and possibly a few losses as well.
You don't have to be a genius to see how this could store up problems for May. By neglecting the media and allowing more coverage of the opposition parties, that can feed into her stability vs chaos pitch - especially if a leadership debate goes ahead without her. They will also be banking on the idea that the more the public see of Jeremy Corbyn, the less they'll like him. It's a gamble, though, especially in these politically febrile times. The flip side of this is the media will start running 'where's May' pieces. Already, they're chafing at the PM's studied non-engagement. The point will come when the campaign has to decide whether this silence is damaging, and they'll try neutralising it in a couple of ways. One would be a Q&A with "the public", which they haven't ruled out - though I would imagine May would have difficulties if her interlocutors are allowed follow up questions. And the second will be Crosby's dead cat. When the press is jam full of complaining and moaning, expect them to push hard on the IRA or Islamist stuff. They won't have any new material, the old stuff dredged up by two Labour leadership campaigns will do the job well enough. And when that happens, Labour has to be ready with a counter of its own.
Another interesting side strategy is expectation management. In stories "leaked" to the press this morning, punters are being fed the derisory nonsense that opinion polls in the key marginals could be out by as much as 15%, and so every vote counts. Utter nonsense, of course, but rational - from their point of view - nonsense. Assuming the Tories win, doing so without speaking to the public is bad enough, but on a turnout significantly below standard numbers stores up legitimacy problems for the future. That might not matter if the majority is a thumping tally, but it certainly will for a Prime Minister determined to prevent Scotland breaking away. If May wants to pose as Britain's authentic voice, she'd better have a strong vote backing her up.
A public facing campaign without the public. This is what we can expect from the Tories and, unless something major happens, it should see them through. More's the pity.