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
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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