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  1. Politics
4 January 2010

Poster boy Dave and the coming campaign

Are you thinking what we're . . . Hang on, scrap that

By Jon Bernstein

Election posters are rarely targeted at the passing eyeballs on the Hammersmith Flyover. Rather, they are designed to create a media event that in turn gets TV, newspaper and, yes, blog coverage worth far more than the price of even the highest outdoor rate card.

And so, here we are again. The pre-campaign skirmishes will be punctuated regularly by these billboard launches, Sky News cameras in tow. In 2005, Labour used this period to launch some of its most memorable (if contentious) posters, including its attack on the Tories for their supposed £35bn cuts in public services.

This time, it’s David Cameron’s Conservative Party that’s first with the ladders and paste. So what can we divine from poster number one?

1. Dave is going to get top billing. It’s “David Cameron (featuring the Conservative Party)” and not the other way around. Given his popularity compared to his party’s, that is understandable. For now, at least. But as Mike Smithson asks over at PoliticalBetting, could the Dave-specific approach become a hostage to fortune?

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2. The Tories are hoping to have it both ways on policy. “I’ll cut the deficit,” says Poster Dave, demonstrating his economic credentials and his willingness to take tough decisions. But “not the NHS”, he quickly adds, with a nod and a wink to those disenchanted Labour voters of 1997, 2001 and 2005.

It will be the Labour strategists’ role to try to make a nonsense of this Janus-like approach. For example, as my colleague George Eaton notes elsewhere, the Tories may come unstuck over claims that a higher inheritance-tax threshold will be revenue-neutral. Again, two-faced: tax cuts, but not at the expense of “front-line services”.

3. The Tories have ditched the dog whistle, for now. You’ll remember the Lynton Crosby-inspired “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” campaign of 2005, which played to presumed fears over immigration, dirty hospitals and violent crime (see picture below). No sign, so far, of this kind of appeal to the base and, to be fair to Cameron, much of his four-year leadership has been spent repairing the damage.

But if the polls start to tighten once the campaign proper begins, there’s every chance the tactics will get dirtier. After all, Michael Howard, who put his name a manifesto titled “Are you thinking what we’re thinking? It’s time for action“, began his leadership trying to move the Conservatives back towards the centre ground.

Incidentally, you may not recall the man charged with pulling that 2005 manifesto together. His name was David Cameron.