This week has seen a clash between the approach of Lynton Crosby, who wants to fight a negative election campaign based on controlling immigration and cutting welfare, and the view of Nicky Morgan, who favours a kinder, gentler conservatism – or, as she put it: “we’re against this, we’re anti that, we don’t like them, we don’t want them here, we don’t want them doing this…If we talk about what we hate all the time, we’re not talking about what we like and what we want to do to help people who want to do well. We never say ‘actually, we are on the side of these people, we want this to happen and we think this is great’.”
Certainly, there have been enough welfare and immigration-based announcements driven by Number Ten recently to buttress this version of events. (For example, Monday saw Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith’s get-your-retaliation-in-first strike on Rachel Reeves, when they announced that jobless immigrants are to be denied housing benefit.) And, arguably, Morgan’s words were pitched at Downing Street’s high command – though another plausible explanation is that the Treasury Minister was taking aiming at some on the Conservative right. But the longer the week has gone on, the more questionable this picture of a Manichean clash has looked.
Tory Ministers were given a presentation in political Cabinet earlier this week, and those who received it say that claims of a narrow, negative campaign are wide of the mark. To be sure, cutting immigration levels and reducing welfare dependency are part of it. But even in these cases, posters mocking benefit claimants are out and IDS-style compassionate conservatism is in: if it wasn’t, the Work and Pensions Secretary would not have been loosed to make his speech on Wednesday. Duncan Smith explicitly blamed the welfare system for creating dependency, not its users for their behaviour – or, as he put it: “it was generations of politicians that created this welfare system that now traps them”.
In other words, Benefits Street is the state’s fault, not that of those who live in it. However, this week’s presentation went much wider, taking in tax cuts for lower paid people, the reduction in fuel duty, cuts in green levies, and action to raise skills (such as the drive for more apprenticeships). Not so long ago, the big Conservative word was Freedom. “Britain Strong and Free,” the Party’s manifesto declared in 1951. “We have made clear through word and deed, to friend and foe alike, our resolve to keep Britain strong and free,” Margaret Thatcher declared over 30 years later. But that has now changed. “The big word, the linking theme,” one Minister told me, “was Security”.
The long Conservative election campaign takes as its starting-point the view that most voters primarily want greater security, rather than more freedom. They may not feel secure in their job, if they have one at all. If retired, they have found saving scarcely worth the while. If young, they are waiting longer to buy a home. Their incomes have been squeezed by the effects of the crash. Filling up the car or paying a gas bill is a challenge for household budgets. They are less tolerant of welfare claimants who haven’t paid into a system that depends on pay-as-you-go. Insecurity dogs older people as well as younger ones, with many of the latter wondering: who will care for me when I’m old?
Conservative Campaign Headquarters is increasingly adept at pumping out tweets and graphics showing rises in employment or falls in crime – or deficit reduction. What I think is preoccupying Downing Street is how to make its claims stir peoples’ feelings as well as thoughts – how to turn statistics into a story of working for voters’ security in an uncertain world (though it is hard to see how yesterday’s figures-driven initiative over jobs and growth fits in). The other side of the coin, of course, is to present Labour as a failed Party with weak leadership that won’t face up to the tough choices Britain needs.
The old saying has it that if you want to keep a secret, the best course to take is to announce it on the floor of the Commons. It may also be true that if you want to push your plan and no-one to notice, do so in a Party Political Broadcast. Consider the last Conservative one, carried above. David Cameron consumes roughly half of it – which tells you that Party strategists see him, or he sees himself (or both) as an asset. His hair is short, his tie is dark and the background is sombre. Translation: we are a serious Party for serious times. The other half of the broadcast features a young man, a mum, no fewer than three ethnic minority voters, and a decidedly non-posh man in a woollen hat.
They talk about paying lower taxes, getting a mortgage, weaning people off benefits, ensuring that immigrants pay into the system. This is the emotional connection that Party strategists want to make – but haven’t yet. “I want to build a Britain where everyone feels secure,” Cameron proclaims. His plan has been under our noses for a while, but surprisingly few people have noticed.