Why has the Tory lead halved since December? James Forsyth says that Cameron and his four top men — Osborne, Hilton, Coulson and Bridges — must take the blame for the party’s dismal performance and its lack of message and purpose
One evening earlier this week a group of senior Tories gathered for a secret meeting in a house in Notting Hill. All of the most trusted members of Cameron’s inner circle were there — George Osborne, Steve Hilton, Andy Coulson, Michael Gove — but the atmosphere was not one of jubilation, or even excited determination. The predominant mood was despair. Osborne put their worries into words: What’s going wrong? he asked. Why are we slipping in the polls, even when Brown is so unpopular?
But though all the Cameroon brains were present in the same room, and considering that everyone there had helped craft the campaign and most considered themselves experts in the dark art of political strategy, no one had an answer. Osborne, who likes to see himself as Brown’s great nemesis, ended the meeting as frustrated as he began it.
It is as clear to the country as it is to the top Tories that the Conservative election campaign is in trouble; that the party seems to be stagnating. One aide puts it like this: ‘A shark has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we’ve got on our hands is a dead shark.’ A senior Tory MP is blunter still: ‘There is a real danger that we might not win this.’ To win, of course, means securing a majority, and an increasing number of Tories believe they aren’t going to get one.
These fears are justified: the situation really is verging on critical. Even after the bullying story came out, YouGov was still only showing a six-point Tory lead — which on a uniform swing would mean the party winning just 17 more seats than Labour. Even factoring in Conservative advantage in the marginal seats (assiduously cultivated for years by Lord Ashcroft) the current polls suggest it is touch and go whether the Tories get a majority. When you consider that they’re fighting against a party whose agenda has bankrupted the country, led by a Prime Minister who is loathed even by his own aides, this seems incomprehensible.
Since the beginning of the year, when David Cameron declared the start of his long campaign, the Tory machine has spluttered, while Labour’s has revved up. The Tories have lost momentum and made unforced errors. Labour morale has not been so high for years.
Tory MPs are torn between schadenfreude and panic. They have been largely ignored by the leadership for the past four years and they complain that if only Cameron had listened they could have alerted him to some of these weaknesses before they became so damaging. The shadow Cabinet — which has been bypassed for most of Cameron’s tenure — is now being consulted. It met for more than two hours on Tuesday — after the Cameroon powwow in Notting Hill — and had, unusually, a proper discussion of the political situation. One member tells me that almost everyone spoke at the meeting. That this is considered news says a lot about how the shadow Cabinet is normally conducted.
Why has the Tory lead halved since December? It is nothing to do with Mr Brown’s much-derided interview with Piers Morgan. The Tories conducted focus groups afterwards which suggested that the whole wretched affair had simply hardened the hostility towards the Prime Minister. It is also nothing to do with the economy, which is still weak. (Senior members of the Tory economic team are now openly speculating that the next set of growth figures will show that the recovery has ended.) Rather, it is to do with the campaign. The Labour message is clear and repeated while the Tory one is opaque. One shadow Cabinet member told me this week that he wished the Tories had a slogan as effective as Labour’s ‘a future fair for all’. Candidates report that voters can remember Labour policies but not Tory ones.
Even the party’s own press people complain — in private — about a lack of clarity. ‘Everyone struggles to articulate what we are really for,’ one told me. ‘We don’t really have a message or a purpose.’ When the salesmen believe they don’t really have a product, then they are much less likely to persuade the media or voters.
So much power is concentrated in Mr Cameron and his four top men — George Osborne, Steve Hilton, Andy Coulson and George Bridges — that they must take the blame for the current situation. This quartet atop the Cameron operation wield complete power, and so must share responsibility when things go wrong.
But diagnosing the problem is not a game of spot-the-bad-guy (although many Tory MPs enjoy playing this game in the Commons tearoom). The problem is that these four strong personalities are not working well together. Successful campaigns have, as a rule, a chief strategist and a campaign manager. The chief strategist decides on the main themes — what the election is about — and the campaign manager is in charge of implementing this vision: the day-to-day tactics. The Tory problem is that there is no campaign manager. All four men want to play at being chief strategist.
Let’s take Mr Hilton first. He looks (at times) like a pastiche of the Cameroon moderniser. He is a maverick whom you will never see wearing a tie. He has little time for the Westminster game, and has considerable confidence in his own judgment. For example, he is unconvinced by the quality of the party’s polling, so he just doesn’t use it, and instead relies on his own instincts and knowledge. To his critics, he is disorganised and can’t distinguish between gimmicks and policies. To his admirers, he is an original thinker who stands the best chance of providing the campaign with a clear direction. Whatever Hilton’s faults — and his time-keeping doesn’t seem to be a natural strong point — the Tories need his vision.
Mr Osborne is the force behind two election mini-miracles: Mr Cameron’s leadership victory, and scaring Gordon Brown out of calling an election in 2007. But combining the jobs of shadow chancellor and election co-ordinator is proving to be a struggle for him. He has already brought in George Bridges, a party stalwart, to help him tie all the strands of the campaign together — to co-ordinate for the election co-ordinator. It’s true Gordon Brown did combine being chancellor with running election campaigns, but this is not a model Osborne should want to follow.
Mr Coulson, the former News of the World editor whom Osborne hired to be the communications man, is going through his first campaign. Coulson has formed an alliance with Bridges, a veteran of John Major’s Downing Street and the 2005 campaign. Friends of Hilton argue that this pair are too cautious, too risk-averse. They complain that this axis’s objections to new policy announcements have killed the party’s sense of momentum, that their fear of one bad headline has overridden the strategic need to be on the side of change. Defenders of the two say they are only shooting down half-baked plans.
There does, though, seem to be a damaging disconnect between the policy and the media teams. In recent weeks, journalists have been urged by the policy team to write about a particular announcement, only to be told by the press team that it is not particularly important.
Coulson’s critics also say he is not keeping the press happy. As one Cameron aide puts it, his approach has been to devote the majority of his time to keeping the BBC and News International happy. This has alienated other media outlets.
And Mr Cameron? His sense of loyalty, while an admirable human trait, may let him down, in that he may have held on too long to a team with which he felt personally comfortable even if it didn’t work part
icularly well. The problems being felt so acutely now — lack of focus, lack of a message to sell on the doorstep, inability to see beyond a two-week news cycle — were complained of a year ago. Even his critics assumed that such problems would be addressed in time for the election. But with the election less than three months away, this seems not to have been the case.
Yet even those in the deepest of panics about the Tory election do not doubt that Mr Cameron is the party’s best hope — and that he is capable of turning things around, as he has done in the past. The two-hour-long shadow Cabinet meeting this week is a sign of him starting to act. Also, I understand that Michael Gove has been drafted in to put sharper focus on a handful of key messages. In his gentlemanly way, Mr Gove is banging heads together. Or, as one aide puts it, ‘Michael has had a beneficial effect on the coherence of people’s thinking.’
The next task is to activate William Hague. Mr Cameron describes him as his ‘deputy in all but name’ — but no one really thinks that this is true. Hague is now being called upon to appeal to the Conservative base, some of whom fret openly that Mr Cameron has made too many concessions to a discredited Labour government. Polling by ConservativeHome indicates that 94 per cent of Tory activists would like Hague and Cameron to front the Tory campaign.
Finally, Mr Cameron has resolved that the campaign needs to focus much more on Labour and Mr Brown’s failings. He is convinced that the Tories have spoken too much about themselves so far this year. This positive message needs to be combined with a relentless focus on contrasting the Conservatives with Labour — and, in particular, Cameron with Brown. Beauty needs a beast. And any campaign director will tell you that the Tories have one in Mr Brown. George Bridges would be particularly well suited to overseeing this part of the campaign.
There are other easy victories to be scored. Cameron’s speeches have been poor recently. But there’s an easy answer to this: take away his notes. When he reads from a script, his delivery is about a tenth as good as when he talks without one — by far the best speech he has given this year was to the TED technology conference, when he reprised his walking and talking trick from the 2007 conference. Mr Cameron avoids this, as memorising a speech absorbs so much time. But given the lack of impact his speeches have made so far, a strategy of ‘fewer but better’ should pay off.
A modicum of organisation would also work wonders. As late as last week, shadow Cabinet members were being asked for their contributions to the general election ‘grid’ — the day-by-day campaign plan. In public, the party says it is not just ready but impatient for a general election campaign. Behind the scenes, the plan for this election is still being drawn up. Yet this is one of Mr Cameron’s strengths: he is not wedded to bad ideas. When an agenda fails, he drops it and tries something new.
In the few times where Mr Brown has dared to face voters — in the European and local government elections — he has led Labour to some of its worst results ever. The Tories know this is their election to lose, yet the fear that they might is paralysing them. Their desire not to take any risks has — as one shadow Cabinet member told me — come across not as caution but as complacency and arrogance. And this is the peril Mr Cameron faces now. If his campaign carries on being crippled by caution, this wobble might indeed become fatal. They need to get the shark moving forward again.
James Forsyth is political editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 27, 2010