Whoever controls the political centre will win the 2015 general election. Or at least that’s the view from the first-floor flat of 10 Downing Street.
David Cameron’s strategists came away from the recent Conservative party conference in Manchester with the sense of a job well done. Those I spoke to were frustrated that some of their work had been overshadowed by the uproar over the Daily Mail’s attack on Ralph Miliband. They acknowledged that Ed Miliband’s announcement he would freeze energy prices had resonated with the public. Yet they also believed Labour had made a crucial strategic error.
“The idea that Labour is marching off to the left has been embedded,” a Tory strategist told me. “Before [the conference season], our dilemma was whether we painted Ed Miliband as a joke or as someone who was dangerous. We’re now confident we can do both.”
Before the Tory tribe arrived in Manchester, there were debates about whether Labour’s so-called core vote strategy (the belief that the party can win the next general election with no more than 35 per cent of the vote) should be matched by one of its own. There were attractions. It could help neutralise the threat posed by the UK Independence Party and reassure activists unsettled by the gay marriage controversy and by Nick Clegg’s provocative flourishing of a list of Conservative policies he had successfully vetoed.
In the end, the lurch to the right that some had been predicting did not happen. “We’ve got our strategy and we’re sticking to it,” a Downing Street source told me. That strategy is clear. For the first time since Tony Blair won a landslide victory in 1997, the Conservatives believe that the middle ground of politics is theirs for the taking. The challenge for them is how to occupy it.
In the aftermath of Cameron’s conference speech, I asked one his advisers why, if the centre ground was so important to the Prime Minister, he hadn’t just stood up and said: “We are the party of the centre now.” The public reason given was a tactical one. “Our strategy is show, don’t tell. Look at Ed Miliband’s speech. It was all about what a strong and decisive leader he was. Well, if you really are strong and decisive, you don’t need to shout about it.”
There are other reasons why the Tories are edging, rather than marching, towards the political centre. First, they are not entirely sure where the centre is. They know, for example, that cuts to welfare help reinforce their reputation as the “nasty party”. Yet they are equally aware that their policies on welfare are popular in the country.
Similarly, they recognise that a tough stance on immigration is vital for bringing back the Ukip defectors. But they are also aware that if they cannot make inroads into the BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) vote, their chances of winning a majority in 2015 rapidly diminish.
That’s why a number of senior Downing Street aides are now keen to stress the importance of the “common ground” rather than the “centre ground”. That means giving guarantees on areas such as NHS funding and then balancing this with tough measures, such as the so-called bedroom tax, which place them firmly on the right.
Another problem is that, after three and a half years of coalition, the Conservative Party is not in a consensual mood. Cameron is stuck between reassuring his party that he will govern as a true blue as soon as the Lib Dem shackles are broken and reassuring the country that a vote for the Conservatives does not mean a vote for a full-on neo-Thatcherite renaissance.
Whatever dilemmas Labour’s abandonment of the political centre pose for the Prime Minister, they’re as nothing compared to the concerns being shared among some of Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet.
There is relief among Labour’s inner circle that Labour’s position in the polls stabilised in the conference season. However, there is also unease at the way Miliband remains wedded to the so-called 35 per cent strategy. So much so, that over the coming weeks, we can expect to start hearing talk of a “40 per cent strategy”.
This may appear to be dancing on a psephological pinhead. Yet those advocating it say that ignores its significance. “If you’re aiming for 35 per cent of the vote, you can play safe,” I was told. “You take the base, bolt on some Lib Dems, some first-time voters, some nonvoters and you’re basically home and dry. If you set your sights at 40 per cent, then you can’t get there without starting to reach out to soft Tory voters. And that, in turn, means getting into some serious, grown-up politics.”
Whether Miliband wants to engage in that sort of grown-up politics is unclear. There was concern – and not just from the New Labour wing of the party – at the purge of the Blairites in the shadow cabinet reshuffle on 7 October. There was a sense that the Blairites were being airbrushed out of the picture, as if they were now an embarrassment to the party.
There is a consensus among those in the shadow cabinet untouched by Miliband’s long knives that Labour’s perceived shift to the left has reached the limit of its elasticity. There surely must be what has been called a “recalibration” towards the centre and tough policy changes in areas such as welfare and education are going to have to be addressed.
Some NS readers might not like it but David Cameron is eyeing up the political centre. He is growing increasingly confident that a recovering economy, as well as doubts about Ed Miliband’s overall strategy, will enable him to claim it as his own.