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Why the Tories should avoid echoing Gove's attacks on Miliband

Throwing rhetorical jibes at the Labour leader is a crude displacement activity that will do little to aid the Tories' cause.

Michael Gove speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Gove's blitzkrieg against Ed Miliband in today's Telegraph ("a blancmange in a hurricane") is a preview of the strategy we can expect the Consevatives to adopt in 2015. Framing the election as a presidential contest, they will depict Miliband as 'weak' (and 'weird') in contrast to the 'strong' (and 'normal') Cameron. 

The Education Secretary writes:

[T]he weakness of Ed Miliband is all the starker when we consider that there is no programme of concrete policies, bound together by principles that make them intelligible and resilient, which any of us in politics can yet associate with his leadership. He is as clearly defined as a blancmange in a hurricane.

...

Miliband, incapable of choosing when he should be eager to lead, inconstant and vacillating when he should be backing the idealists, seeking refuge in a world where Willy Wonka and Montgomery Burns seem relevant because he cannot bear too much reality.

But while Gove and others (most notably George Osborne and Lynton Crosby) believe that attack is the best form of defence, there are good reasons why the Tories should avoid such an onslaught. As Lord Ashcroft, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, noted last year, "Voters think parties go on the attack when they have nothing to say for themselves." In 2010, when the Tories should have focused relentlessly on reassuring centrist voters that they could be trusted to run the economy and protect public services, they ran a crude series of anti-Brown posters emblazoned with slogans such as "I let 80,000 criminals out early - vote for me". Predictably, they fell short. 

The Conservatives should also avoid the error of assuming that an anti-Miliband jihad will draw the voters they need away from Labour. In many cases, they support the party in spite of Miliband, not because of him, so reminding them of this fact is unlikely to help. Far better for the Tories to focus on persuading current Labour supporters that they can govern in the interests of all voters, rather than a rich few (the biggest obstacle, as Ashcroft continually points out, to a Conservative victory).

As I noted yesterday, it is idle and complacent of the Tories to assume that Cameron's superior personal ratings will be their salvation. History shows that a well-liked (or, more accurately, less disliked) leader is no guarantee of electoral success. In the final poll before the 1979 election, Jim Callaghan enjoyed a 19-point lead over Margaret Thatcher as "the best prime minister" but that didn't stop the Conservatives winning a majority of 44 seats. Similarly, in the 1970 election, Harold Wilson's personal lead over Ted Heath (a 51 per cent approval rating compared to one of 28 per cent for Heath) didn't stop Labour going down to a decisive defeat. 

It's too early to say which precedent 2015 will follow, but the key point is this: there is no reason to assume that Miliband's ratings (should they fail to improve) will cost Labour victory. In the meantime, the Tories would be wise to focus on the many obstacles to a Conservative win: the surge in support for UKIP (which will almost certainly improve on its 2010 share of 3 per cent), the defection of Lib Dem supporters to Labour in Tory-Labour marginals (the seats that will determine the outcome of the election) and the continuing lack of growth. Confronted by all of this, strident attacks on Miliband are a fairly obvious displacement activity. Gove can certainly turn a phrase, but his verbal volleys won't turn the election.