At 5.45 a.m. Lynton Crosby holds the first meeting of the day at Conservative campaign HQ. The aim is to work out what threats need to be neutralised that day and what opportunities should be capitalised upon. The early start isn’t macho posturing but a reflection of the modern media environment. The news now moves at such pace that a lie can go all the way round the worldwide web before the truth even has its boots on.
The political weather is rarely more changeable than in a close election campaign. In this environment, the trick is to work out what actually matters: what might determine the election. But after the past week one thing is clear: the Tories have survived a wobble that could have turned into a death spiral.
Labour’s pledge last Wednesday to abolish non-dom tax status was typical of Ed Miliband’s ‘people versus the powerful’ populism. As Fraser Nelson writes on page 14, the Labour leader is unafraid of proposing policies that break with the prevailing consensus. This leaves the Conservatives appearing to be defenders of a status quo regarded by many voters as deeply unfair.
When Ed Miliband did this over energy prices, the Tories floundered for weeks before they worked out how to respond. Last Wednesday, many senior Tories feared that the move on non doms would dominate the political agenda in the same way that Miliband’s energy price freeze had.
Tellingly, late last week, Conservative cabinet ministers were talking about those running the campaign in the third person, setting out what ‘they’ needed to do to turn things round. Party discipline was beginning to fray. Liam Fox, the former defence secretary, delivered coded but public criticisms of the campaign. Even those close to No. 10 admitted they were baffled as to why the ‘big society’ had suddenly returned with a pledge to provide employees of large companies with three days of paid volunteering leave. It was as if the Conservative post-mortem had already begun.
But somehow the Conservatives righted themselves. A panoply of policy pledges — £8 billion more for the NHS, family homes taken out of inheritance tax, a doubling of the free childcare allowance and the extension of the right to buy to housing association tenants — restored the party’s faith in its prospects. The Conservatives are now offering competence with a purpose. Cabinet ministers are again talking about the campaign in the first person plural.
This Conservative manifesto marries the insights of modernisation, the importance of the NHS and appealing to working women with the party’s traditional strength: the tax-cutting instinct. The most significant policy in it is the extension of the right to buy to housing association tenants. The importance of the original right to buy was that it created a new cadre of homeowners and shifted the centre of political gravity to the right. It was not a measure designed to appeal to the Conservative base, but rather one designed to expand that base. A property-owning democracy is one that is more opposed to wealth taxes and other populist but economically destructive, ideas.
The most worrying trend for the centre right in Britain today is the decline in home ownership. In 2003, 71 per cent of homes in England were owner-occupied. Ten years later, that was down to 65 per cent. If this trend continues, politics will shift to the left. Extending the right to buy to 1.3 million housing association tenants should help to slow this decline. But if this trend is to be reversed, which is politically imperative for the Conservatives, it will require a lot more houses to be built.
Perhaps the greatest boon for the Tories in the last few days, though, was Labour’s strategic blunder. It decided to launch its manifesto with a claim to be the fiscally responsible party. It was a brave decision to try to seize Tory turf, but a mistaken one. Labour can’t make any claims to fiscal responsibility until it concedes that last time it was in government it spent too much. Eds Miliband and Balls are not prepared to say that because they simply do not believe it.
There are now just 20-odd days left until polling day. In a sign that both sides expect this election to go to the wire, they have both kept policies back from their manifestos to boost the last few days of the campaign.
The Conservatives will concentrate on two main themes in these final weeks. The first is tax. The party leadership believes that voters haven’t yet realised how sizeable the income-tax cuts the party is offering are. The second is the prospect of the SNP propping up a Labour government. The Conservatives believe that the fear of what this would mean will drive English voters to them in the final furlong of this race.
But the Conservatives also need to find a way to show that David Cameron actually wants to do the top job. At the moment, this is not coming across. According to one of those who knows him best, part of the problem is actually how nervous he is about losing. This fear is constraining his -performances.
The Conservatives, not least Cameron himself, are fond of playing up the parallels between this campaign and that of 1992. One wonders if Cameron might be well served by taking another leaf out of that campaign’s strategy and getting on his soapbox, engaging with the voters as John Major did and proving that he is not too posh to push.
When I put this idea to one political professional, he dismissed it as unworkable in today’s world of smartphones and rolling news. But the Conservatives do need, somehow, to find a way to demonstrate to the voting public that Cameron retains his hunger for the job.