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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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