Published:


AshcroftBy Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC.

Things
may be looking up at last. This year has brought a long string of bad news for
the Conservatives, much of it self-inflicted. Yet over the last few weeks I
have become  a little more confident
about Tory prospects than I have been for some time. There are two main reasons
for this surprising burst of optimism.

First,
last week’s growth figures. I am aware of the caveats, of course. The figures
are notoriously unreliable, and one set of numbers does not change the experience
of any actual voters; we are some way from any kind of feelgood factor. And as
we can never forget after 1997, economic recovery does not necessarily lead to
political recovery. This time, however, I think the chances are that it possibly
could.

The
electoral consequences of an upturn partly depend on how plausibly the
government can claim responsibility for it. Fifteen years ago, the slogan ‘Yes
It Hurt, Yes It Worked
’ seemed ludicrous because it tried to claim that a
series of humiliating fiascos, culminating in the ejection from the Exchange Rate
Mechanism that left Britain free to set its own interest rates, had in fact
been the plan all along. This time around, nobody is in any doubt – not least
because Labour helpfully remind people at every opportunity – that the
austerity drive that has helped keep the markets’ confidence in the Britain has
been a deliberate policy. If by 2015 there is a tangible improvement in the
economy where people feel their own circumstances beginning to improve,
combined with serious progress on reducing the deficit, David Cameron and
George Osborne will deserve credit
and I think there is the possibility that they will get it.


Whether
a government benefits at an election from a strengthening economy also depends
on the alternative on offer. In 1997 the tired Tories, for whom growth was not
enough to distract the public from their many other failings, faced an
unbeatable opponent who seemed to understand the world better than they did.
But in this parliament, Labour’s economic plan has been to rely on anti-cuts
rhetoric while pointing out that the economy is not growing. As a strategy this
always had its limitations. It certainly promises little against a government
with a clear plan that voters believe is working. A falling deficit combined
with undeniable growth threatens to leave Labour stranded.

The
second reason for my more hopeful outlook is the strategy Cameron set out in
his conference speech. With its emphasis on aspiration, this hit upon many of
the themes of my research published in the week before the conference, Blue Collar Tories, which highlighted
the need to show that Conservative policies would spread opportunity, not
concentrate it. Alongside a clear economic strategy and policies on firm but
humane welfare reform, this has the makings of an attractive proposition to the
electorate.

If
that is the basis of the message, the machinery is also being put in place to
deliver it. The 40/40 target seats plan, which aims to hold the forty most
vulnerable Conservative-held constituencies and win at least forty more –
enough for an overall majority – is well thought-out and deliverable, with new
campaign managers dedicated to the operation. This work can build on the
experience of the 2010 target seats campaign, which delivered a net gain of 23
Tory seats over and above what would have been achieved with a uniform national
swing.

There is also the
opportunity to learn from mistakes. One of these was to confuse or even
contradict the consistently positive local message delivered over two or three
years with an opaque and often negative national campaign. Research should not
be ignored, as it too often was (though not by the target seats team). We should also look again at the place of televised
debates. Ideally these would include only the two serious candidates to be
Prime Minister. If this cannot be agreed, the party should consider whether the
disruption to the campaign – in terms of preparation time and the potential for
nasty surprises – makes taking part worthwhile.

Finally
we need to ensure we do not repeat the errors of campaign organisation that
were perpetrated last time. As Janan Ganesh correctly notes in his biography of
George Osborne (which I reviewed in Saturday’s Guardian), one of the problems with the 2010 campaign was that it
was “run” by a handful of senior figures with different ideas, none of whom had
the authority to overrule anybody else. This chaotic situation must be avoided
next time – but one sure way to repeat it would be to bring in another big
figure with his own ideas about how campaigns should be run.

That
is why I believe it would be a mistake to hire Lynton Crosby. Not because it
would lead to a re-run of the immigration-dominated 2005 campaign (as argued in
the Sunday Telegraph
by my old friend Peter Oborne, who, not for the first time,
has come to the right conclusion but for the wrong reason), but because I do
not think he is needed and would become a distracting influence. Cameron and Osborne and their team have started
to develop the strategy; Grant Shapps and the incomparable Stephen Gilbert will
see that it is put into effect on the ground. Crosby will have his own views
about what the message should be – hence his reported determination to control
the party’s polling, not just implement the campaign – and how things should be
done in the field. Far from ensuring a single strong manager, this is a recipe
for the kind of conflict and confusion that dogged the 2010 campaign and helped
to cost us the majority we could have won.

The
Tories challenge is no less great than it was before: to attract new voters to
the party and win back those who have defected since 2010, at a time when Ed
Miliband is buoyed by an army of former Lib Dems. But at last, the Conservative
Party has the beginnings of a plan and a team in place to deliver it. Let’s
give them a chance to make it work.

Comments are closed.