People stood shoulder-to-shoulder, careful not to stamp on those sat on the floor, contorting their necks just to get a view of the speakers. They were here for the first ConservativeHome event of this Party Conference – or, more specifically, to find out about Lord Ashcroft’s latest tranche of opinion polling. They wanted to hear him set the scene for the next election. They packed out the marquee and then some.
But before Lord Ashcroft set the scene for the next election, Rick Nye of Populus set the scene for Lord Ashcroft. He sketched out a general view of the electoral landscape. Apparently, there have been some 1,650 national opinion polls since the last General Election. Average them out, and Labour have a lead of around three to four points over the Conservatives. But what about Ed Miliband? Nye pointed out that the Labour leader isn’t really associated with any qualities whatsoever – “except he did once own weirdness.” It’s Nigel Farage who “owns” weirdness now.
It was then Lord Ashcroft’s turn to provide more detail. He started by listing four types of voter with regards to the Conservatives: loyalists, joiners, defectors and considerers. Given the recent (mis)adventures of Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell, it wasn’t surprising that the third of these – the defectors – seemed to most capture the audience’s attention. According to Lord Ashcroft, 27 per cent of those who voted Conservative at the last General Election now intend to vote for a different party. 75 per cent of these put immigration among their top concerns. 54 per cent have switched to UKIP.
Lord Ashcroft also presented the findings of his polling across various individual constituencies. Here, he concentrated on what he calls the “Liberal Democrat battleground” – those more marginal seats where the Conservatives and Labour will be looking to take over from the Lib Dems. How do the Conservatives fare? In this selection of seats, there is a two per cent swing away from yellow and towards blue. But, as Lord Ashcroft was quick to point out, this overall figure masks some wild variations between each seat. In Chippenham, there has been a ten per cent swing towards the Conservatives. In Eastbourne, a 7.5 per cent swing in the other direction.
It was left to Tim Montgomerie and Chris Grayling to respond to all this. The former editor of ConservativeHome, and current Times columnist, started by mentioning a voter whom he had met on a Manchester tram on Saturday. This chap knew everything about that day’s football matches, but he didn’t know the result of the Scottish referendum. Which make Tim wonder: “What will people notice?” He thought the Conservatives’ best chance of attracting interest was to reject the easy populism of Labour and UKIP, and instead be “the party that looks as though it has the long-term answers.”
The Justice Secretary also mentioned football. He thought there was a lesson in Manchester United’s horrible 5-3 defeat to Leicester last week. Why did Leicester win? “Because they never stopped believing that they could win.” His point was that the Conservatives should fight and fight and fight, right up until election-day and beyond. The Party has a good news story to tell about the economy, he said, as well as an organised ground operation. And it has another asset, too: Ed Miliband. “It is a choice between David Cameron as Prime Minister and Ed Miliband as Prime Minister.”
Which made it sound as though next year’s election will be fought, even more so than usual, like a presidential one. Their man against ours. Just don’t forget about those marginals that Lord Ashcroft mentioned.