By Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC.
It is not clear how much the Conservative Party has paid M&C Saatchi to come up with the daft poster, unveiled over the weekend, depicting Ed Miliband and Ed Balls as gormless schoolboys under the slogan 'Labour Isn't Learning'. Nor do I know how much it cost to hire the ad van to drive the thing pointlessly around Manchester. What I do know is that if I had recently donated funds to the Tories I would be asking what on earth CCHQ thought it was doing with my money.
Political operatives like to say knowingly that negative campaigning works. As I have pointed out more than once before, I doubt that it works anything like as well as they say: people make their own minds up about politicians, and heavily discount what their opponents say about them. But even if you think attacking the other side can be effective, can anyone seriously think that of a poster like this?
The two approaches to the economy and the deficit offered by Labour and the Conservatives are the central divide in politics upon which the next election campaign will be fought. The figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggesting Labour would borrow £200 billion more than the Tories helps to illuminate the debate, and CCHQ can help ensure that reporters and commentators are well aware of them. Papers inclined to question Labour's credentials on the economy will have extra ammunition to make their case. The facts are potentially powerful, but it is hard to see how this juvenile Photoshopping could do anything other than make ordinary voters roll their eyes in despair.
The Conservative Party finds itself in office in serious times. David Cameron, George Osborne and other senior Tories are at their best when saying and doing things that show they are up to the responsibilities they have assumed. It is no coincidence that ability to take tough decisions for the long term is one of few desirable attributes that people associate more with the Conservatives than Labour. Silly stunts like this do not sit easily with the qualities a party of government should be able to claim for itself.
The next election will be decided in marginal seats by often people who will in many cases be anxious and confused about the country's direction and their own prospects. These are the people at whom our campaigning activity should be aimed. Is this poster supposed to be aimed at them? Surely not. So who?
Like the ubiquitous 'Are You Thinking What We're Thinking?' campaign in 2005, which invited the simple response 'No', the declaration that 'Labour Isn't Learning' prompts people to wonder whether the Tories are themselves listening. It suggests we see the whole thing as a big game.
As I said after the 2010 election in Minority Verdict, it is easy to see why people in politics produce material like this: attacking your opponent is easier, not to say more fun, than setting out what you stand for and what you want to do. The Bottler Brown beer mats marking the non-election of October 2007 are another example. Such things may produce a welcome chortle in the office but to assemble a winning coalition of voters we must show strong leadership, display the right priorities, demonstrate that we're on the side of the right people, and offer reassurance about our character and motives. Behaving like grown-ups would be a good start.