Strange as it may seem, there are still people around David Cameron who regard the Scottish referendum campaign as a great success. Yes, they say, the nationalists didn’t like the original ‘Project Fear’ — the attempt to frighten Scotland into voting no — but it worked. Alex Salmond was defeated by a 10 per cent margin — proof, it’s argued, that relentless negativity works. Those who complain about it are either losers, or too squeamish to win. Andrew Cooper, chief of the Scottish ‘in’ campaign, said afterwards that the only criticism he would accept is that it was not negative enough. This attitude is a poison in the bloodstream of the Conservative party.
Voters can smell the poison in Zac Goldsmith’s disgraceful campaign for London Mayor, which will come known only for his bizarre smears against his rival, Sadiq Khan. And the positive case for Zac? Even he struggled to articulate it. He will soon see how effective all this has been. And how persuasive was Cooper’s Project Fear in Scotland? As the polls showed, it relentlessly repelled voters from unionism. A country once ambivalent about separation has been turned into an SNP one-party state.
Yes, relentless fearmongering and negativity wins elections, but its side effects are monstrous: if you have nothing good to say about yourself, only venom to spray at your opponents, then you won’t keep or recruit supporters. Pummelling a weak opponent allowed the Tories to win the last general election — but as Freddy Gray argues in this week’s cover story, it was a deceptive victory. The Conservatives have a majority (just), but the party has been hollowed out, its membership falling, its constituency associations in decay and now facing abolition.
It is no surprise that, when it came to the EU referendum campaign, Andrew Cooper was asked to revive Project Fear — to give a fix to a Tory leadership now addicted to negativity.