New Tory poster swerves to the right

Tough new poster declares: "Let's cut benefits for those who refuse work".

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Well, not much sign of the "Big Society" here. The Conservatives have just released this new poster, which will go up on 500 sites across Britain tonight.

It's by far the harshest message promoted by the Tories this year and has more in common with Michael Howard's ill-fated 2005 election campaign than with anything we've seen under Cameron's leadership.

It's not the policy as such that's startling (Labour has also pledged to cut benefits for those who refuse work) but the dramatic shift in tone. For Cameron, who spent much of the early part of his leadership "detoxifying" the Conservative Party, it represents a huge gamble.

We know from off-the-record briefings that senior Tories have been privately urging Cameron to "dump" the abstract "Big Society" and revert to a more traditional election strategy. It looks like they won.

A well-documented tug of war has been taking place between Cameron's strategy chief, Steve Hilton, and his director of communications, Andy Coulson, since the turn of the year.

Hilton, heavily influenced by a spell in California, has consistently urged Cameron to run a positive, hopeful Obama-style campaign. The launch of the "Big Society" marked the apotheosis of this strategy. Conversely, Coulson, the ruthless former tabloid editor, has pressed Cameron to run a fierce, aggressive campaign that relentlessly targets Gordon Brown's record. This poster has his fingerprints all over it.

After the launch of this poster, Cameron can be justifiably accused of reverting to a core-vote strategy amid the panic caused by the surge in the Lib Dems' poll ratings.

Whether more follow in its wake or not (is immigration next?), Cameron's claim to be a moderniser is looking remarkably thin tonight.

 

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

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.