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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.

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

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.