On the wall in Conservative Campaign Headquarters is a clock counting down the days, hours and minutes to the next election. It is so large that anyone who enters for the next 901 days won’t miss it. The party is now on an election footing, as the clock is intended to demonstrate. Grant Shapps, the new chairman, had it installed as soon as he was appointed to inject a sense of urgency into CCHQ’s work.
Talk to people there and in Downing Street and you would think the election is only months away. They regard David Cameron’s conference speech as having kicked off a long campaign. They speak of ‘election messages’, and ask who will manage target-seat strategies.
Later this month, George Osborne and two of the Prime Minister’s most senior political aides — Stephen Gilbert and Andrew Cooper — will sit down with Lynton Crosby to see if a command structure for the election campaign can be worked out. Conservative high command is keen to bring Crosby, the man who oversaw Boris Johnson’s elections as London Mayor, on board. They believe that the Australian would provide the discipline and clarity that were so lacking from the 2010 campaign.
Stephen Gilbert has been in charge of drawing up a list of the 40 seats that the party should target at the next election. He has not just taken the constituencies that the Tories need the smallest swing to win. Rather he has devised the list based on demographic factors, polling data and the kind of consumer targeting information used by companies.
Gilbert has drawn a brutal but inescapable conclusion: to win a majority, David Cameron will have to crush the Liberal Democrats and take the scalps of about a third of their MPs. A crude analysis of the last election suggests that just nine Lib Dems would be in the Tory cross-hairs, but I understand that Gilbert’s hit list now contains 20 Lib Dems. The Tories, it seems, are now governing with the enemy — and this has huge implications for the coalition.
Gilbert’s hit list will be published before Christmas, but its details are already seeping out. When I told one Lib Dem minister that he would be targeted under this strategy, he looked irritated, straightened his tie, said, ‘Well, then I better make life more difficult for them. I think I’ll be a lot less cooperative than I was planning to be,’ and stalked off.
Few Conservatives sympathise with their coalition partners’ plight. The Liberal Democrats’ decision to scupper boundary changes which Conservative high command regarded as vital to their chances of victory at the next election still rankles. Indeed, not all Conservatives have given up hope of getting the boundary changes through the Commons. One MP close to the leadership can rattle off various combinations of alliances that would see the boundary review pass the House. The chief whip Sir George Young, in his brief stint on the back benches, repeatedly made clear to colleagues that he believed that a vote could be won if every Conservative MP went through the aye lobby. He even suggested instant de-selection for anyone who defied the party on the matter.
But for all this irritation with the Lib Dems, Conservative Cabinet ministers are acutely aware that they actually need their cooperation to recover. One remarked to me recently, ‘The odd thing is we need them to go back up in the polls.’ The thinking goes like this: the Conservatives are polling better now than they did in Margaret Thatcher’s mid-terms. But Thatcher had the crucial advantage that the left-wing vote was split between Labour and the SDP. In the same way, Cameron’s Conservatives need the Liberal Democrats to take support away from Labour.
This is why some Conservative strategists are attracted to the idea of Vince Cable as Lib Dem leader. They note that all the polling shows that under his leadership, the Liberal Democrats would get a bounce at Labour’s expense. Clegg loyalists are exasperated by this talk. They argue that it is ‘too clever by half’ and that anyone in No. 10 who wants it isn’t thinking straight. They maintain that Cable would only ever do a coalition deal with one party, Labour.
There’s little doubt that Clegg now wants to lead his party into the next election. He feels he now knows how to get things done in government; his office is now properly organised and, as one insider says, he ‘regularly outthinks and outmuscles No. 10’. But it’s striking that in a recent conversation I had with a Lib Dem Cabinet minister about how his party’s 2015 campaign would play out, there was no mention of Clegg.
One of the cleverer Lib Dem tactics is to have as many policies as possible referred to the ‘Quad’, Whitehall’s name for the meetings between David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander. One Conservative minister complains that you can push an idea all the way through the Cabinet system only to find that it has been overruled at a Quad meeting.
Another Liberal Democrat advantage is internal communications. Conservative ministers complain that the first they know of something in their purview being discussed by the Quad is often when the other side questions them on some technical detail. When the Cabinet met in Bristol this week, the local Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams benefitted from a joint appearance with the schools minister David Laws. But Bristol’s Conservative MP Charlotte Leslie wasn’t blessed with any visits from ministers despite the entire Cabinet being in town.
Over the next two and a half years, the coalition parties will have to govern together while preparing to campaign against each other. This will stretch Cabinet collegiality to the limit; one secretary of state admits that he’s already compiling a list of the most electorally damaging ideas that the other party has proposed which have never become public.
But the most difficult trick for the Conservatives will be helping the Liberal Democrats prosper nationally as they plot to deprive them of parliamentary seats. Whether they can pull this off or not will go a long way to determining if they can win a majority.