If anyone arrived yesterday
morning for ConservativeHome’s “Victory 2015” conference hoping to be told that
the path to Tory success at the next general election is straightforward, they
will have gone away disappointed last night.
If, however, they
arrived hoping for an intelligent and constructive insight into the scale of
the challenges that lie ahead and how we, as Tories, might address some of our
current failings, then the chances are they left buoyed by the day’s proceedings.
In recent years, the ConservativeHome
website has won a reputation for delivering exclusive revelations and unpalatable
truths to the party faithful – and the sell-out conference that it hosted
yesterday in Westminster was no exception.
The delegates had
barely had time to get comfortable in their seats before I was giving them the
results of my latest polling which took place in the marginal seats ie those
that will decide the outcome of the next general election.
The results were not
for the faint of heart: polling indicated that the Conservatives would lose no
less that 93 seats to Labour in an election tomorrow, suggesting an 8 per cent
swing to Labour in the Tories’ most vulnerable seats.
There were, however,
at least some crumbs of comfort to be found in the detailed results of my
polling that was based on interviews with more than 19,000 voters in 213
To start with, the 8
per cent swing to Labour is, in fact, lower that the national swing suggested
by headline voting intention polls – partly because Labour is finding it hard
to break through in Conservative seats in London and parts of the South.
Furthermore, of the
Liberal Democrat seats in England and Wales, Nick Clegg would lose 17 to the
Conservatives and 13 to Labour – including two where Labour finished third – in
an election tomorrow.
In my address to the
conference, I stressed that the poll represented a snapshot not a prediction,
adding: “I don’t want to see a Labour majority of 4, let alone 84. But I hope
this puts the challenge into some sort of perspective. We have a long way to go
to hold onto the seats we gained last time, let alone pick up many more. But
things are slightly less grim than the headline polls suggest, and we have
everything to play for.” Indeed, this was a recurring theme of yesterday: there
really still is everything to play for
over the next two years.
I also addressed the
party’s ambitious (over-ambitious?) “40-40” targeting strategy: to defend its
most marginal 40 seats and to attack Labour’s 40 most vulnerable seats. “The
Tory marginal seats strategy looks like the equivalent of planning the final
assault on Berlin, while we were evacuating the beaches at Dunkirk,” I warned.
Anyone wanting to see
the full results of my latest poll should click here to visit Lord Ashcroft Polls.
Incidentally, I began
yesterday by addressing some recent press reports that I had withdrawn my
financial support for the Conservative Party cause.
I made it clear that I
would not be contributing to a conference on how Conservatives could win the
next election if I no longer supported the party. I have decided, however, that
for this Parliament I would prefer to spend my money on political research
(rather than donating to the party).
These are difficult
times for us in the wake of the bitterly disappointing Eastleigh by-election
result. The Times yesterday carried a
front-page lead story, based on a poll conducted by ConservativeHome, headlined:
“Tory voters fear next election is already lost.” The poll showed that just 7
per cent of Tories believe David Cameron will win an overall majority at the
The Conservative Party
has not won a majority at a general election since 1992. Bookmakers are not
renowned for giving their money away and the fact that they now offer odds of
9-2 for a Conservative majority at the next election also indicates the daunting
size of the task that lies ahead.
commenced at 10.30 am with Nadhim Zahawi, the Conservative MP and the
conference chairman, welcoming delegates to the event, which was sub-titled:
“For Britain, For Her People.”
Tim Montgomerie, the
editor of ConservativeHome, then outlined the aims of the day. He detailed how
a main theme of the conference would be an argument that the party needs to rediscover
its one-nation character: to build its Conservatism around the core values
associated with jobs, family and education.
During the morning
session, there were valuable contributions from three other speakers discussing
the three “Ms”: message, machine and manifesto. Stephan Shakespeare, of YouGov
and ConservativeHome, set out his vision for a one-nation Conservative message.
“It’s not about left v right; Conservatives have to learn to wrap their issues
in emotional warmth,’” he said.
Matthew Elliott, of
the TaxPayers’ Alliance and the No2AV campaign, set out his thinking on the
kind of machine that political parties need to win elections in the modern age.
He said that with the decline of mass membership parties, Conservatives needed
to engage with “third party groups” to build up their party machine.
Jesse Norman, the
Conservative MP, presented changes that the next Tory manifesto must address.
He said the key ingredients for the 2015 manifesto were to avoid “IOU politics”
(cheap promises), to have honesty with optimism, and to have a short, clear,
engaging and long-term message.
After lunch, Grant Shapps,
the Conservative Party chairman, gave a short talk on “The Electoral
Battleground”, but offered little in the way of detail on the party’s target
The party chairman was
dismissive of excessive “strategising”, saying electoral victory was more
likely to be achieved through “actions” (such as knocking on doors in the
constituencies) and proving to the electorate that the party deserves their
However, he was given
an occasionally spiky reception from delegates who criticised everything from
the party’s out-of-date online campaigning to its use of “cold and unfriendly”
language (suggesting “positive and warm” language would better serve the cause).
Next, five panellists each
gave a three-minute presentation, followed by a Q&A session, into how the
Tories can win in 2015. Liz Truss MP, Martin Callanan MEP and senior
journalists Anne McElvoy, Fraser Nelson and Steve Richards prompted a lively debate from the floor on the direction
the party needs to take in future.
Fraser Nelson got a
loud laugh from delegates when he described me, through my polling, as “a ghost
of Christmas future” warning “Scrooge Cameron” what will happen if he does not
change his ways!
Delegates were then
given the opportunity to attend two out of four workshops, each lasting for 45
The keynote address was made by Theresa May, who was in fine fighting
form. This is the first time since the Home Secretary was party chairman that
she has set out her vision for the future.
Theresa May delivered a passionate insight into her three main pillars
of Conservatism: security, freedom and opportunity. And she ended her address with
a rallying call to the party faithful: “We will change
the country for the better. And we will win the next general election.”
The last major event
on the “menu” for delegates involved the publication of ten policy ideas that Tory
Party members think are needed to win the next election. Yet again, there was
no shortage of innovative suggestions from the floor.
I found yesterday’s conference
productive, stimulating and worthwhile, and I thank everyone who contributed
towards it being such a success. The event did not tell delegates what they wanted to hear. Instead, it told them
what they needed to hear.