No 10’s “barnacle-stripping” has failed to keep irreconcilable Tory tribes on message

Any communications strategy devised in Downing Street also has to compete with noisy agendas elsewhere in the party.

When prime ministers felt confident in their position they used to call elections after four years. Five is a schlep. Half-decade-old administrations look cornered, spent.

David Cameron has no choice. As a gesture of commitment to coalition in 2010, he surrendered the power of the snap ballot. It was an act of unilateral disarmament, decommissioning the element of surprise. Such generosity doesn’t save him from looking haggard by 2015.

As things stand, the Conservatives have two interlocking reasons to be glad there are another 16 months to go to the general election. They are behind in the polls and the economic recovery, legible on paper, isn’t yet palpable in voters’ pockets. Downing Street expects prosperity and Conservative popularity to grow together this year.

The obvious risks are that the economy doesn’t perform as hoped and that, even if it does, voters don’t go blue with gratitude. Another problem is inactivity as the party waits for the incoming tide to lift it off the electoral beach. The Conservatives have a simple message about what they claim to have done so far – rescuing Britain from Gordon Brown’s ruinous rule. They also have the crude outline of an offer for government after 2015 – more cuts, a European referendum, harsher immigration controls. That leaves a year of thumb-twiddling.

The hiatus is partly a function of a coalition endgame. The Lib Dems, afraid of looking supine, routinely boast of thwarting Tory plans. Cameron has played along, claiming to hoard policies in a “little black book” for when Nick Clegg is no longer leaning over his shoulder. Frustration has become a def­ining feature of Conservative identity.

The Tory agenda has also narrowed thanks to the barnacle-stripping fiat from Lynton Crosby. The Prime Minister’s election strategist advised Cameron to shed small policies that impede the flow of a campaign message through the airwaves. Crosby’s arrival had an immediate impact, with Tory MPs becoming notably more uniform and aggressive in their deployment of centrally dictated attack lines during 2013. But the edges are already fraying and not everyone is persuaded by the virtues of monomania.

It is a poorly kept secret that Andrew Cooper, the founder of the Populus opinion polling firm and until last year a strategist in Downing Street, has doubts about Crosby’s approach. He shares the concerns of moderate MPs that the Australian guru’s method doesn’t work for the specifically British challenge facing the Tories. Crosby tests an issue against two criteria: do voters think it matters a lot? Is it an area where Conservatives are judged to be strong? If the answer is a double “yes” – fiscal rigour, crime, immigration, welfare – the topic is primed with maximum campaigning energy. Otherwise, it is deemed a distraction.

The flaw is that not enough effort goes into messages that neutralise fear of unalloyed Conservative rule, which is the cultural hurdle the party has failed to clear in every general election of the 21st century. Ever tougher rhetoric on immigration doesn’t answer the question of whether the Tories can be trusted with the NHS. Ever deeper welfare cuts won’t dispel suspicion that the Conservatives are a party for the rich.

Message minimalism also denies the effects that low-impact issues can have in human­ising the Tories. For example, Crosby discouraged the recent drive to intervene against the tide of internet pornography. On that occasion he was overruled by Cameron. Although too many micro-initiatives clog up a prime minister’s agenda, there is a role for targeted interventions that connect his personal concerns with the anxieties of voters (in this case, parents freaking out at the ubiquity of digital grot).

Any communications strategy devised in Downing Street also has to compete with noisy agendas elsewhere in the party. Hard­line Eurosceptics are spraying out unrealistic proposals for Cameron’s putative renegotiation of British EU membership. Rural MPs seethe in expectation that their green and pleasant constituencies will be buried under concrete thanks to new planning rules. There are MPs lobbying for a hike in the minimum wage as an emblem of compassion for low-paid workers – an idea supported by Jo Johnson, head of the No 10 Policy Unit, but resisted by the Chancellor. There are MPs itching for tax cuts.

Differences have also emerged on the front benches. The Prime Minister, haunted by his televised promises to preserve rich pensioners’ benefits, guarantees them in perpetuity. George Osborne thinks that pledge expires next year. The Chancellor is also in a feud with Iain Duncan Smith, driven partly by Osborne’s constant raids on the benefits budget and partly by his undisguised belief that the Work and Pensions Secretary is a dolt. Meanwhile, Tory liberals say that Downing Street has no control over the anti-foreigner sirens that broadcast Theresa May’s leadership ambitions from the Home Office.

There is nothing unusual about parties containing rivalries and schisms. Labour is packed with them. What should worry the Conservatives is the apparent trajectory away from message coherence as the election nears. It suggests that Crosby’s skills as a disciplinarian are overrated or that some Tory divisions simply cannot be contained.

For most Conservatives, four years of coalition is enough. The party’s various tribes are impatient for change. The current project has run its course and they want to move on. That is the essential contradiction in the Tory message. The head talks about responsible government; the body language is in opposition.

David Cameron returns to Downing Street yesterday after Prime Minister's Questions. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 1914 to 2014

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.