It’s a hundred days until polling day. So let’s have a look at how the Conservative campaign is going – on the ground and at the centre – and at what it tells us about the state of the Party. During the last few days, I’ve had a bit of a trawl of Tory MPs, both in marginal seats and not. As the old saying has it, I may not be wiser, but I am better informed.
- Everything is about the 40/40: “I am on my own,” an MP told me who sits for a seat that is both far from safe, yet not in the 40/40 – that’s to say, in the list of target seats that may or may not actually add up to 80, and which has changed since inception as internal party polling changes. Unless they are in the 40/40, MPs who won marginal seats in 2010 will get no special help – that’s to say, no money from the centre; no visits from Team 2015. They must rely on their incumbency. As Lord Ashcroft has pointed out, this is far from an automatic ticket to re-election. And nine members of the 2010 intake have announced their retirement – so their seats will enjoy no incumbency bonus.
- Crosby is in charge… As our candidate in a marginal but non-40/40 seat pointed out recently in his diary on this site, some candidates in “safe” seats and non-40/40 marginals are being directed to the nearest 40/40 target, and being told to take their money with them. This is a big ask for people who have given up their jobs to fight the seat in question. But it is evidence of the single-mindedness of the Conservative campaign chief. The campaign has been streamlined to focus on the Government’s main area of strength – the economy. The focus of candidates, even in safe seats, is on being constituency workers, not future Ministers. No wonder only a single SpAd, Oliver Dowden, has been selected in one to date (and he is a local). The manifesto will be proofed against risk by Jo Johnson and the team working on it.
- …Except when Osborne is… Like Crosby, the Chancellor is winning rave reviews – at least from MPs in the 40/40. “You can see how his confidence has grown,” one told me. “In the House, there’s no longer any sense that he’s asking himself: what would Rupert want me to say? (This was a reference to Rupert Harrison – Osborne’s leading special adviser.) But what impresses them most is his focus on winning their marginal seats and getting them re-elected. “He completely gets it,” another told me. “My respect for him has grown and grown.” This dedication shows itself especially in the distribution of public money to marginal seats, evident at the time of the recent announcement on roads spending. During a ’22 meeting at the time of the Autumn Statement, he was deluged with bids for cash from backbenchers.
- …As the flow of money to the marginals demonstrates… The Chancellor is taking full advantage from this movement of money into the 40/40. Consider this report of more funding for the refurbishment of Royal Sussex County Hospital, which serves those marginal Brighton constituencies. Or this one about the expansion of Rowley Regis Hospital, which “is in the marginal seat of Halesowen and Rowley Regis”. Or this one about the Royal Devon and Exeter. It is Osborne who visits, makes the announcements – and bags the credit. Eat your heart out, Jeremy Hunt! The student of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson has learned from the master of pork barrel politics. The Chancellor’s door is open to any MP in the 40/40 – if they’re onside, at any rate. It helps that his PPS, Robert Halfon, is fighting marginal Harlow once again.
- ...But there is unease about the Chancellor’s “control of the Whips Office”. Like Lyndon Johnson, too, Osborne has a well-honed interest in party management. Fairly or unfairly, most of the MPs I spoke to felt that the Whips’ Office is now effectively in his hands, and that Michael Gove, Osborne’s friend and ally, is as much the Chancellor’s Chief Whip as the Prime Minister’s. Osborne also gained an edge over other senior Tories when it came to Christmas cards. One MP who received a card made out personally to him by Boris Johnson also received one from the Chancellor…made out personally to him and his wife. Certainly, whether the matter at hand is spending in the 40/40 or Ministerial appointments, the tentacles of Octopus Osborne are at work.
- “The campaign literature is better than anything I’ve seen before…” …In the words of one MP in a 40/seat. Another praised the design as “brilliant”. Another still described the material as “far more professional than last time”. A couple of MPs questioned the national template, with one describing it as “clunky and robotic”, but the general verdict is an emphatic thumbs-up. Team 2015 is out and about in the marginals each weekend, and its setting-up and take-off reflect well on Grant Shapps – though there are doubts about whether it can be effectively deployed during the full-scale contest of a general election campaign. Morale among MPs appears to be higher than the polls justify. Many simply can’t believe that Ed Miliband can win, and take comfort from the rise of the Greens and the SNP.
- …But is VoteSource the campaign’s Achilles Heel? I have written before on this site about problems with CCHQ’s new system – indeed, they have been raised at the Party Board. Isabel Hardman of the Spectator wrote recently that it is now being run parallel with Merlin, the old one. I report what a variety of Tory MPs told me without further comment. “We’re not using it.” “I haven’t enough data to run a full canvass anyway.” “There’s no inherent problem with VoteSource, but it certainly doesn’t provide all the data we need.” “Unlike Merlin, you can’t get out all the data you need about one subject at once.” “For heaven’s sake, everyone always moans about computers. Nothing new.”
And there you have it. The 40/40 seats are picked. Crosby directs candidates and party money there. Shapps sends in Team 2015. Osborne masterminds a stream of public spending and grips the Whips Office. Behold the Ozbyisation of the Conservative Party.
So the Conservative campaign (computers aside) looks in good shape – though a questionmark hovers over delivering the vote on the ground. But what becomes of politics if the only voters that count are a handful of swing ones in a clutch of marginals? What happens to the long-term health of the Party?
To these questions we will return.