Poster boy Dave and the coming campaign

Are you thinking what we're . . . Hang on, scrap that

Election posters are rarely targeted at the passing eyeballs on the Hammersmith Flyover. Rather, they are designed to create a media event that in turn gets TV, newspaper and, yes, blog coverage worth far more than the price of even the highest outdoor rate card.

And so, here we are again. The pre-campaign skirmishes will be punctuated regularly by these billboard launches, Sky News cameras in tow. In 2005, Labour used this period to launch some of its most memorable (if contentious) posters, including its attack on the Tories for their supposed £35bn cuts in public services.

This time, it's David Cameron's Conservative Party that's first with the ladders and paste. So what can we divine from poster number one?

1. Dave is going to get top billing. It's "David Cameron (featuring the Conservative Party)" and not the other way around. Given his popularity compared to his party's, that is understandable. For now, at least. But as Mike Smithson asks over at PoliticalBetting, could the Dave-specific approach become a hostage to fortune?

2. The Tories are hoping to have it both ways on policy. "I'll cut the deficit," says Poster Dave, demonstrating his economic credentials and his willingness to take tough decisions. But "not the NHS", he quickly adds, with a nod and a wink to those disenchanted Labour voters of 1997, 2001 and 2005.

It will be the Labour strategists' role to try to make a nonsense of this Janus-like approach. For example, as my colleague George Eaton notes elsewhere, the Tories may come unstuck over claims that a higher inheritance-tax threshold will be revenue-neutral. Again, two-faced: tax cuts, but not at the expense of "front-line services".

3. The Tories have ditched the dog whistle, for now. You'll remember the Lynton Crosby-inspired "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" campaign of 2005, which played to presumed fears over immigration, dirty hospitals and violent crime (see picture below). No sign, so far, of this kind of appeal to the base and, to be fair to Cameron, much of his four-year leadership has been spent repairing the damage.

But if the polls start to tighten once the campaign proper begins, there's every chance the tactics will get dirtier. After all, Michael Howard, who put his name a manifesto titled "Are you thinking what we're thinking? It's time for action", began his leadership trying to move the Conservatives back towards the centre ground.

Incidentally, you may not recall the man charged with pulling that 2005 manifesto together. His name was David Cameron.

 

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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