Robbie Gibbons, left, and Sabrina Clarke, right, with the FT's Roula Khalaf and George Parker © Charlie Bibby/FT

British general election campaigns are filled with rituals and traditions that can seem mystifying from the outside: the carefully choreographed rallies, the battlebuses, the interviews with party leaders determined to give nothing away.

To get an outsider’s perspective on the 2017 campaign, the FT invited along two readers to see Theresa May in action on the campaign trail and asked them to recount what they made of their behind-the-scenes experience.

Sabrina Clarke and Robbie Gibbons joined FT deputy editor Roula Khalaf and political editor George Parker at Derby County’s football stadium to meet the prime minister and to see her in action and to watch how the media cover what is turning out to be an intriguing campaign.

Sabrina Clarke, managing director, Build Global

Constituency: Greenwich and Woolwich (Labour seat)

Voting intention: Undecided

What was your impression of the election before joining the campaign trail?

This general election could be remembered for one of the most audacious political strategies executed by a ruling party in UK history. It could equally end up as the biggest unforced error. Either outcome for Theresa May will have a lasting impact on Britain’s domestic policy, its relations with the EU and beyond. The result will be a statement on how the British public chooses to define government in very polarising times. There has been a striking contrast between the campaigning styles adopted by the Tories and Labour. Particularly noticeable to me was the lack in the national campaign of Tory leaders other than Theresa May. I had hoped to get a sense of the inner workings of the campaign, to see if there would be more visibility from other Tory leaders on the trail, an understanding of how the media interacts with the parties and a closer look at the campaigning style of the prime minister that may not translate on TV.

George Parker and Roula Khalaf interview Theresa May in Derby © Charlie Bibby/FT

What did you expect the campaign trail to look like and how did it compare with what you saw?

I expected it to be chaotic. Yet the pace initially struck me as more like the process of boiling water — taking its time to heat up. The campaign bus was running late so by the time we arrived at the Derby County football ground, and were whisked into the media room, many journalists were tired from a very long day on the campaign trail. I was very struck by how collegiate the journalists from all the outlets were. I had anticipated a more competitive tone but it was refreshing to witness how everyone engaged. I was surprised at the level of intimacy granted by Mrs May. There were just six of us in the interview. My impression of the May campaign, from the media, had been one of control. So it felt like a rare opportunity to be invited into the inner circle, albeit for a brief moment. Once the interview ended, as we headed out to the main room, I then saw what I had anticipated all along. I walked down a long hallway, flanked on both sides by security, before turning the corner and then we were at full boiling point, with crowds on both sides of the aisle holding placards that read, “Vote Conservative”, “A Strong Economy”. In that moment it felt like I was on a campaign trail.

How do you think the election is being covered by the media?

There are certain outlets that have a clear bias. So as a consumer, I am always alert to partisan coverage. Along with a focus on four issues: Brexit, healthcare, national security and policing, one of the main themes of the coverage has been to compare and contrast the leadership styles of Mrs May and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. Personally, I would like to see more balance in the coverage between discussion of the leadership and what everyday voters are thinking. Not from a polling perspective but more their sentiments, frustrations and hopes for the country to give an indication of the seats that could be won or lost on June 8.

Has your experience affected how you plan to vote?

It has made my decision more difficult. I am what I call a policy-driven independent. There are issues that I feel very strongly about such as immigration, healthcare and taxation. Based on my reading of the manifestos I think all the parties show strength in different areas but my choice is narrowing to either Conservative or Labour. I run my own advisory company, Build Global, and as a small-business owner, I asked Mrs May how her government would support entrepreneurs and small businesses. Her response — an outline for raising the tax-free personal allowance, not increasing VAT or corporation tax — showed a considered approach to an area that is critically important. However, I remain undecided because I am not a single-issue voter and while taxation will inform my decision, immigration and healthcare remain important.

FT photographer Charlie Bibby and deputy editor Roula Khalaf en route to meet the prime minister in Derby

What stuck out for you on the campaign trail?

Mrs May is very engaging in a smaller setting. This does not necessarily translate on TV. When she answered my question, we were at the end of the interview with a rally due to start in literally one minute. She did not need to take the time but she did. The second thing, as mentioned before, was the collegiate nature of the reporters to each other. I am not naive enough to assume that there is not a cut-throat element to this but there was a genuine desire to get the story, understand the narrative and report. I think we are living in a time where the role of journalism is even more critical then ever. We need credible, researched sources to inform our decisions and understanding of not only elections but also news. It is reassuring to see first-hand journalism at its best.

Robbie Gibbons, director of operations at an international consulting firm

Age: 34

Constituency: Holborn & St Pancras (Labour seat)

Voting intention: Lib Dem

What was your impression of the election before joining the campaign trail?

Going into the day I was hoping to see if the campaign was really as controlled as it had appeared in the media — and try to find out more about why the Conservatives had moved away from the social and economic liberalism that had served Tony Blair and David Cameron well. The media pack and the prime minister’s staff looked tired! But their spirits seemed high and there was plenty of good discussion, serious and humorous, going on between them.

What did you expect the campaign trail to look like and how did it compare with what you saw?

I expected the PM’s staff to be busy, flustered and tired — and to have little time for a hanger-on such as me, there just for the day. But I found them warm, friendly and welcoming — in the little time that they had — and surprisingly open to answering genuine questions about how things were going. That said, stage management was evident everywhere. The rally we saw was in a mid-sized function room and the 50 or so activists had been corralled into a very small space. Masking tape on the carpet marked out a small rectangle for them to stand in, and the camera podiums had already been positioned by party staff. The overall result: the appearance of a large and intense crowd around the PM. I’m a little surprised that the media don’t comment more explicitly on these tactics — or that broadcast media don’t stand a little further back when filming so that the manipulation is clear.

I was delighted to find that our day would include the FT’s interview with the PM. I was sceptical that her press team or security would allow two FT readers to join but they did, and I was astonished to find that we were left alone in a small room with the prime minister, her head of press, and three FT staff. I had seen Theresa May as someone a little awkward — reminiscent of Gordon Brown, the former Labour leader, in social style and perhaps also with the same tendency to confuse inflexibility with strength. In person I found her warm, natural, confident, and accommodating.

FT readers Sabrina Clarke and Robbie Gibbons at the Conservative event in Derby © Charlie Bibby/FT

How do you think the election is being covered by the media?

We were warned before entering the room that the PM had a reputation for not giving journalists new information or anything off-message or off the record: that for the media she was often a frustrating subject. Having seen her in the interview I found myself sympathising with her. Her answers were mostly as reasonable as could be expected. Indeed she reminded me of many corporate leaders I’ve seen in action: answering questions openly where possible, but keeping her options open or refusing to answer where necessary.

I was surprised to find myself more in sympathy with her than the press pack. It appears a zero-sum game: for them to be happy, she has to slip up and tell them something they can turn into a story, most likely negative — or at least share something she would rather they didn’t know. And for her to be happy, they have to be denied that so she can control the messaging. I am not sure why she drew my sympathy — it may be as irrational as the fact that there are a pack of them and only one of her — but it was a feeling I couldn’t shake.

Has your experience affected how you plan to vote?

The experience won’t change my vote — I’d like to think my rationale is sound enough that a few hours among political operatives wouldn’t shake it — but I did come out with more understanding and empathy for her and her staff. And as a result, I’ve resolved to be less critical of personalities in politics — they may be running the country, but they’re still people.

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