The news that the Tories have selected just 34 candidates in the 50 most marginal seats (compared to 48 for Labour) has led to renewed questions over the party’s commitment to achieving a majority at the general election. It’s worth noting, as ConservativeHome’s Mark Wallace does, that the Tories have selected candidates in all 40 of their target seats (which are not the same as those with the smallest Labour or Lib Dem majority), but there is no doubt that the party has adopted a more defensive approach.
The initial 40:40 strategy (aimed at winning 40 new seats and retaining the party’s 40 most vulnerable) has been abandoned in favour of a 48:40 strategy weighted towards existing constituencies. It is these seats that the party is also focusing financial resources on.
Some in Labour might be tempted to respond by deriding the party’s lack of ambition but the Tories’ reorientation could be bad news for the opposition. Aware that they have little hope of achieving an overall majority, owing to the rise of Ukip and the electoral bias towards Labour, the Conservatives are rightly focusing on the far more achievable goal of remaining the largest party in a hung parliament. By raising the local profile of its new MPs, the party hopes that it will benefit from the traditional first-time incumbency bonus (in 2010, it performed best in those seats it won in 2005), the factor that many Conservatives believe will tilt the election in their favour.
As for Labour, it remains formally committed to targeting 106 seats but one source recently told me that the figure (adopted when Tom Watson was general election coordinator) was not “set in stone”, suggesting only that the party was committed to seeking a majority (106 gains would give Labour a majority of 78). The greater the evidence of the Tories’ defensive approach becomes, the more likely it is that Labour will dampen its ambitions too.