ConservativeHome asked earlier this month what would happen if the polls hadn’t moved by its end. Now we know. “Send for Boris,” the Times (£) cried yesterday. “This is a grey campaign lacking in colour that could do with some blond streaks,” it went on, urging that the Mayor be moved to the centre of the Tory operation. This was not exactly a wobble, though three Conservative MPs were quoted in praise of the idea. But it was perhaps a mini-wobble, a pre-wobble, a wobble-ette – a sign of what may happen if no clear Tory lead has opened up in the polls by the start of the campaign proper.
The charge sheet is long and the paper has a point. Some women members of the Cabinet believe that the campaign is negative, and offers little positive for women voters (a charge that Downing Street and CCHQ vigorously dispute). There is certainly little in it so far for younger ones. And there is arguably even less for any at all outside a minority of seats.
Long-term work in urban areas, among ethnic minority voters, in the universities, in charities and voluntary groups and business and across civil society – all have been sacrificed for the sake of squeezing David Cameron back into Number Ten by the seat of his pants. Candidates in marginals who have given up careers to contest their constituencies have been told to give up, and go to the nearest 40/40 seat, along with the money that they have raised. MPs who get into trouble, such as Malcolm Rifkind, are thrown to the wolves, even if they have given most of their working lives to the Party. Ministers are degraded and infantalised by a bathetic system of gold stars. MPs are treated as canvassing fodder – a means to an end. And still there is no Conservative poll breakthrough.
All this is true, but it is not the whole truth, or even the most important part of it. For months if not years, the centre-right media, including this site, complained constantly of a lack of focus and discipline in the Tory operation. What was needed, we argued, was a conservatism for Bolton West – down-to-earth policies for those crucial swing voters in the midlands and northern marginals.
And we duly got it: the Northern powerhouse, frozen fuel duty, a higher income tax threshold, an end to annuities on compulsion, lower corporation tax, a jobs miracle, the fastest growth in the G7 and an election message that concentrates on the economy – all delivered against a background of reforming, grown up government, reductions in most departmental budgets, higher satisfaction ratings with public services…and no general strike. Furthermore, the campaign, like Lynton Crosby himself, is more subtle than his reputation would have it, with its concentration on security in an uncertain age. Wasn’t Rifkind responsible for his own downfall, sad as it may be? Isn’t the discipline of this campaign far better than the shambles of the last one? Shouldn’t Cameron’s critics stop trying to have it both ways?
Even if your answer to these questions is No, it is not at all obvious that simply sending for Boris will solve anything much. For a start, Boris has been sent for already. He has been out and about, in Cannock and Derby and Leeds and the midlands and north as well as London. Obviously, he has a humongous campaigning part to play in the capital and elsewhere. He must be fully integrated into the campaign plan. But the electoral problems of the Conservatives are long-term ones – wrapped up with voter perceptions about values (the ‘Party of the Rich’ meme) and experiences of recession. They would not be solved by the short-term expedient of clapping Boris’s head on Cameron’s campaign.
In any event, dramatic gestures – such as a sudden announcement that the Mayor was to be rushed in to lead the Tory campaign – usually cause more problems than they solve. A gleeful media would seize on such upheaval as a collective admission of failure. In the studios and on the airwaves, Grant Shapps would explain that the campaign was so successful as to need a change – to snorts of laughter from John Humphreys and Andrew Neil. In the Commons, MPs would scurry hither and thither as though an ants-nest had been prodded with a stick. Critics would brief about “panic”, “chaos”, and (worst of all) “an unravelling campaign”. William Hague would emerge to issue “clarification”.
This is not to recommend masterly inactivity instead. ConservativeHome phoned round Conservative MPs yesterday. Later today, we will run what about ten of them told us, verbatim and without comment. Readers will see that there is concern, but no wobble, let alone panic – at least yet. They will note that the morale of Tory MPs seems to be higher than is justified by the polls, strictly speaking. Perhaps this is because there is a sense that at least some UKIP defectors are returning to the fold, and that the Labour vote is very soft. Readers may also like to know that three MPs said that the campaign needs more warmth – more of a sense of “sunlit uplands”.
Nearly all the MPs agreed on one point. Downing Street and CCHQ stress that the Tory team is the right one for the country. In which case, they said, it should be projected more, especially since the Prime Minister and Chancellor complement each other in terms of background and outlook. This site has a distinguished history of Magnificent Seven posters. So we offer our latest with a stress on MPs who are from ordinary backgrounds, or who are women, or both. It is more than a bit arbitrary. If you want other senior Ministers who are effective at putting the case across, we could also have put in Jeremy Hunt or Nicky Morgan or Chris Grayling or Michael Fallon…and more.
CCHQ and Downing Street would come back on this suggestion. They would say that the whole Conservative Cabinet is out and about – working below the radar of the Londoncentric media, campaigning in the regions, running up the column inches in the regional press, grabbing big slices of local TV and airtime. Perhaps. But there’s always room for a bit more.