“No We Can”: the inside story of the No to AV campaign

No to AV scored a commanding win on 5 May, yet its early days were a muddle of partisan chaos. Dan H

My first day in defence of Britain's voting system wasn't a good one. An opinion poll had just been published showing double-digit support for changing to the Alternative Vote. Then I had been called in to a meeting where I'd been told our opponents were likely to outspend us by a margin of 3-1.

"You think you've got it bad," said one of my new colleagues. "On my first day someone walked over and said, 'Just to let you know, our Scottish organiser's just died.' "

I had joined a campaign, if not in crisis, then in a quandary. No to AV may have been one organisation but it consisted of a Tory head and a Labour heart. Matthew Elliott of the Taxpayers' Alliance was its director. Joan Ryan, the former Blairite minister and whip, was Elliott's putative deputy.

Labour was split, caught between a desire to oppose anything that could entail sharing power – or even a platform – with Nick Clegg, and a less instinctive desire to support Ed Milband's commitment to electoral reform. This left the No camp reliant on the Conservatives to provide the big battalions and big money.

But come the new year, neither had materialised. David Cameron was determined to stick to the terms of the coalition agreement and would not allow his party to engage with the No camp until the Referendum Bill had been passed. "We couldn't sign off budgets, which meant we couldn't buy ad space and that meant we couldn't even formally launch," one insider recalls.

Big sticks and fires

Things came to a head in the second week of January when Dylan Sharpe, the No team's wily head of press, reported that Gordon Brown's old spin doctor Paul Sinclair had begun touring the parliamentary Press Gallery every day, reinforcing the impression that the Yes campaign was running away with the contest. Sharpe later confided in colleagues that he concocted the story in order to "light a fire" under the campaign. It worked.

Peter Botting, a veteran political consultant with extensive contacts among Conservative backbenchers, was despatched to spread the word in the bars and corridors of parliament that the high command weren't pulling their weight. "It was a dangerous time for us," says a senior Tory activist, recalling that time. "We were getting dragged into the internal politics of the party.

"The usual suspects who had it in for Cameron were going to use us a big stick to beat him with."

Within a week, a delegation led by the 1922 Committee chairman, Graham Brady, was confronting David Cameron and George Osborne. According to one report of the encounter, Cameron was told: "You do realise there is now a serious prospect you could have the distinction of being the last ever Conservative prime minister?" Later, Cameron asked Osborne, "It's not that bad, is it?" "Yes, I think it is," the Chancellor replied.

From that point, though the public message was one of studied neutrality, behind the scenes the Conservatives began to embrace the No camp. Funders were pointed towards the campaign, weekly meetings were established between leading No staffers, and the PM called Elliott in for a briefing on the state of play.

Nevertheless, tensions remained. Though ultimately successful, the relationship between the two senior No campaign managers wasn't always harmonious. Partly that had to do with their respective backgrounds. Joan Ryan is a streetfighter, used to the bare-knuckle politics of the whips' office. Elliott, though caricatured by his opponents as a ruthless Thatcherite wolf, is a quiet, reserved, even slightly shy English gentleman; a strange cross between Norman Tebbit and David Niven.

Out of this disconnect, two campaigns were now operating.The Labour team was put in charge of the "ground war", mobilising activists around the country. The Tories were supposedly running the "air war", the messaging, media and advertising. In reality, neither was in full control of either.

"It was a mess," recalls an activist. "Someone sat down to talk us through the 'media grid'. It started with Churchill's birthday. Fine. Next was Australia Day. We had a line about Australia and Fiji, so we nodded. Then the Queen's birthday. This wasn't a media grid, it was just a calendar."

Moreover, each side had its own ad agency, pollster and designer. The Tories employed Boris Johnson's former campaign manager Lynton Crosby to run focus groups. Labour staffers were sceptical when Crosby's results indicated an implausibly high turnout. Meanwhile, Tory campaigners were suspicious of Labour's marketing agency, responsible for a series of leaflets. "Tory associations were refusing to deliver them," says an activist.

Toxic shock

Drastic measures were required. Ryan grabbed a senior team member and pointed to the dividing wall that separated the two halves of the campaign. "Get a sledgehammer," she said. "That wall's got to be down by the weekend." As it fell, the "Shotgun Strategy" was born: a twin assault on the Cost and Clegg.

The former was simple. I asked the campaign's researcher Piotr Brzezinski how long it would take to finish putting a price tag on the new voting system. "Three weeks," he responded. "Sorry," I said, "it's like that film Crimson Tide. We haven't got three weeks. We have to have that figure by Friday or the world ends." We got it.

The Clegg attack was more problematic. Ryan insisted that we should push the slogan "Tell Nick No"; Elliott thought it too negative. The collapse of the Lib Dem vote at the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election on 13 January made it clear that Clegg was toxic, but the Tories remained cautious.

"Clegg was putting pressure on Cameron to stay out of the debate," says a senior Tory. "After Oldham [Cameron] was sensitive to that. He didn't want to start kicking Clegg when he was down." Conservative HQ sent word that Clegg was not to be touched. But "the key [to winning] was Labour voters. No Clegg, no way of mobilising them," says a Labour campaigner.

It took Stephen Parkinson, the main Conservative linkman in the campaign, to march into CCHQ at Millbank and explain that, without the freedom to attack Clegg, No to AV was over and he would walk. "It was an important moment," says an insider. "People at CCHQ didn't think much of the No campaign, but they respected Stephen. When he started banging the table they had to listen."

CCHQ relented. On 14 February the No campaign formally launched, using images of a baby and with the slogan "She needs a new cardiac facility not a new voting system"; "Don't vote for President Clegg" soon followed.

"The £250m figure gave the campaign a bit of focus and stopped the slide in the polls," says a senior insider. "But even in February, the media weren't that interested in the issue. We needed to find a way of getting it more exposure."

At that point fate took a hand. While preparing a series of regional ads, I failed to notice that one of the standard "baby pictures" had been changed to fit the format of the page. The replacement image was much more graphic, with tubes, wires and syringes.

"Yes pounced, the pro-AV press slaughtered us and CCHQ hit the roof. But the [£250m] figure went global," a former colleague recalls. The move had one unintended consequence: it drew fire away from the attacks on Clegg. "Yes was after the £250m figure precisely when we were moving off and starting to go for Clegg," another insider says.

Flip a light switch

With less than four weeks to go until polling day, Downing Street informed us that Cameron was planning a new, high-profile intervention. Alarm bells sounded among the Labour team. Ian McKenzie, a former spin doctor for John Prescott, warned Ryan that the lobby was being heavily briefed that No was a "Tory front". Jane Kennedy, the former Labour MP who had skilfully shepherded over half of her erstwhile colleagues into the No camp, expressed unease at the potential impact of Cameron's proposed speech.

"The key to victory was Labour voters. They were effectively the switchers. If Yes managed to turn it into a referendum on Cameron, we were in trouble," notes a Labour staffer.

Ryan demanded a meeting with Elliott and one of Cameron's close aids, Stephen Gilbert. Sensitive to growing Lib Dem criticisms of collusion between No 10 and the No campaign, they decided to hold the meeting in a private room of the Park Plaza Riverbank Hotel on the Albert Embankment. "Joan told Gilbert that Cameron had to back off," says a source. "The PM doesn't do backing off," came the response.

A compromise was reached: Cameron would speak, but together with a senior Labour, the former defence secretary John Reid. Labour voters got the message. The morning after Cameron and Reid's joint appearance, the Guardian published a poll showing that support for AV had collapsed. In effect, the 2011 referendum campaign was over.

Dan Hodges was a communications consultant for the No to AV campaign.

A version of this article appears in this week's New Statesman.