The things one worries about are seldom the things that come to pass. It seems strange now to reflect that, as we prepared to launch Call Me Dave, Isabel Oakeshott and I would sometimes wonder whether our biography of David Cameron was going to get the attention we thought our two years’ graft merited.
So, we’re not complaining about the deluge of coverage. Like Kim Kardashian’s posterior, it almost broke the internet – although the anecdote that caused such a sensation was only a few paragraphs out of 200,000 words and was never presented as fact (rather as a curious tale that could be believed or otherwise). In relating this story there was never any intention to be nasty, or to judge the PM for taking part in such antics – if indeed he did. We all did a few daft things when we were young.
Not a hatchet job
One notion I would contest is that Call Me Dave was planned as a hatchet job. It is nearly 600 pages long, and we went to great lengths to speak to dozens of sources who were both sympathetic and close to the PM; some, inevitably, on condition of anonymity. They gave us a great deal of material that reflects well on him. We wanted to produce a thorough, balanced and impartial biography, and – colourful anecdotes notwithstanding – I think anyone who reads the whole book will agree that this is what we have done. As we make clear, Cameron has much of which to be proud.
Perils of the papers
The downside of having your book serialised in a newspaper is that you do not get to write the headlines. The Daily Mail gave us a great showing, but “Revenge” is not quite the word I would have chosen to sit above the first day’s coverage. Many in Westminster knew that my relationship with Cameron was not as close as it once was, and I wanted to clarify why this was the case: essentially, I believe I was offered a position that never materialised. I was upfront about that in the preface, but what follows that introduction is objective. After all, my co-author, who is a former political editor of the Sunday Times, has no beef with Dave.
So why did I write it? John Rentoul, an astute observer of these things, had an alternative theory about my motive: “It would seem that [Ashcroft] is obsessed with politics, is interested in finding things out and has a sense of mischief. He sounds like a journalist.” There is a world of difference between mischief and rancour. Those who know me know I enjoy the first but am too busy getting on with life for the second. I’d say Rentoul is just about spot-on.
The first day of serialisation naturally brought a flood of messages, crafted in varying degrees of civility. Most polite of all, and most unexpected, was an invitation to speak to the political society at Eton College. Evidently I have not yet been blackballed from every corner of the establishment.
A pleasing by-product of all the polling I have published over the past five years has been the chance to get to know people on all sides of politics. One such new pal is Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson.
He may prove to be right that Labour MPs unhappy with the Corbynite dispensation will nevertheless conclude that defecting to the Liberal Democrats would be “like leaving the Beatles to join a Bananarama tribute band”. But voters are not the same as MPs. Fewer than ever think they have much to lose by switching parties. As I found in my Project Red Dawn research, conducted before Corbyn’s election was confirmed, while Labour-Conservative switchers found the move tough, defectors to Ukip never looked back. And few Labour loyalists voted with any enthusiasm.
It may seem a distant prospect, but the idea of a Lib Dem revival built on centrist Labour voters who think their party has departed from reality – especially if the Tories start to behave as though they are taking the next election too much for granted – is not entirely fanciful. Not entirely.
On my 2013 trip to Brighton to listen to Ed Miliband, I was surprised he did not do more to reassure voters about the economy, welfare and immigration. As I write this, the party is back at the seaside listening to its new anti-capitalist shadow chancellor set out his plans for higher taxes, and looking forward to hearing the leader the Sun has concisely christened “Mad Jezza”. Two years ago, I concluded that Ed Miliband thought he could win with the support he already had. The question now is whether the Corbynists don’t realise they are electorally doomed, or whether they don’t care. (At least, after 1997, the debate in the Conservative Party was over how to win again.)
Soon after the election the Labour MP Jon Cruddas came to see me to compare notes on how to learn the lessons of successive trouncings. He has now produced a superb analysis. But will anyone in the party who doesn’t already understand be prepared to listen? As Louis Armstrong sagely observed, “There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them.”
And for my next trick . . .
Readers will not have to wait long for my next book – in fact, it’s out this week. Pay Me Forty Quid and I’ll Tell You, written with Kevin Culwick, the director of Lord Ashcroft Polls, collects the findings of my general election focus groups to tell the story of the campaign as seen by real voters.
One lesson is that most people have better things to do than pay attention to politics. But the voters are the heroes of the book. They sometimes miss things or get the wrong end of the stick, but they know what’s going on and they know what they’re doing – as conference-goers of all colours would do well to remember.
“Call Me Dave” by Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott is out now (Biteback, £20)
This article appears in the 30 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide