The CCHQ strategy is to never to talk about strategy, but Tory chairman Grant Shapps cannot hide his excitement on this Saturday afternoon. Just a week after the Conservative Party came third in a national poll for the first time ever, 650 Tory activists are out campaigning in the Newark by-election. That is enough boots on the ground to deliver 40,000 leaflets and canvass the entire Nottinghamshire constituency ahead of Thursday’s vote. ‘I haven’t seen anything like this since Crewe,’ one seasoned activist tells me, referring to David Cameron’s narrative shaping by-election victory over
Gordon Brown in 2008.
Shapps is particularly pleased with a text from the Telegraph’s Dan Hodges, said to be the PM’s favourite columnist, who gets in touch to tell him that Labour figures are baffled by the noticeable beefing up of the Tory ground machine. As chairman, Shapps has staked his reputation on turning around the party’s field operation, which was in poor shape in 2010:
‘I think the trend has been obvious for quite some time – that politics is moving away from the treasurer and secretary of the local association organising three other people to come out. I think the realisation that the world had changed in that way was probably something we intuitively knew, but we were too slow in time for the last general election.’
‘Team 2015’ was launched to some eye rolls in 2013 as a reward-based activist pool designed to target the 40 key seats that the Tories need to hold or gain in order to secure that elusive majority. Shapps says he modelled it on his own operation in Welwyn Garden City where he turned a 5,000 majority in 2005 into a ultra-safe 17,000 at the last election. ‘I will regularly get thirty people out on Saturday morning. Am I paying them? No. To professionally deliver the entire constituency would cost £7,000 but you know what I do, I put all the names in the hat at the end of the delivery and there is lunch for two in the best restaurant in the area, which probably costs the association 180 quid.’
His backyard also notably bucked the Ukip trend in this month’s local elections. Instead of lunch, ‘Team 2015’, which is run centrally by CCHQ staff, dishes out awards and meetings with Cameron and the cabinet. ‘As I joke with the PM, the top platinum, platinum prize is you get to go to Ibiza with Sam and David – it's for the person who devotes their life to the campaign.’
‘In fairness to the PM, he has always loved it,’ Shapps assures me. ‘When I presented 'Team 2015' to MPs at one of our parliamentary meetings, he stood up afterwards and said “this is the best things I've seen from CCHQ in thirty years”. His quote may be a slight exaggeration, but we've now built up our network to almost six thousand people.’
The numbers are grabbing MPs’ attention too. Many of them hold the party’s troubled Merlin voter data responsible for losses in 2010, and an increasing number are wondering, at all levels in the party, why they are still using it in the run up to the next election. Anything that can bypass the cranky, dated system is seen as a blessing. If just half of the pledged ‘Team 2015’ supporters are deployed effectively, the hundred most marginal seats in the country will have a 30 strong volunteer team at their disposal.
Plenty of campaigns have tried to recreate the carrot and stick structure of Obama’s unprecedented 2008 fundraising and voter mobilisation effort, with the Tories going further than most by hiring the President’s former campaign manager Jim Messina to advise on strategy. Shapps is quick to mark his territory when asked what it was like working with one of the world’s most successful political strategists:
‘Actually, it's just interesting to compare notes, but we run our own campaign. Team 2015 is a great example of something I had come across from my own experience. Other organisations like the London Olympics had the Games Makers, their recognition system. It turns out Jim had that, what are they called, thing for Obama. I can't remember what they called it. Anyway, the Team 2015 bit of it had it's own name. So of course it's interesting to compare notes.’
Bellwether by-election defeats hang heavy on the Tories, most recently in Corby and Eastleigh, where they failed to defend or win seats they need if they are to win outright in 2015: ‘These things don't take a few weeks and months, it takes years to build these structures, and that's why I made it my number one priority upon becoming Chairman. And suddenly a year, year and a half later, people are going “bloody hell, I get it. Now what you can do is deploy lots of people around the country.”’
‘I haven’t really heard very much about it’ Deputy Chief Whip Greg Hands tells me as we watch Shapps and ‘Road Trip 2015’ coordinator Mark Clarke firing up 150 such activists outside Newark Conservative Club ‘but it seems to be working. It seems to be something that people would want to join.’ No. 10 Political Secretary and increasingly isolated Tory by-election grand panjandrum Stephen Gilbert isn’t sure where to look as a brace of activists sloppily snog in the car park rather than go leafleting.
‘It’s a bit of a dating agency’, chuckles Clarke, who set up a team of roving
campaigners that have now been brought into the fold under the ‘Team 2015’ banner. The formula is remarkably simple: activists are bussed in from around the country – this time it’s 150 from London and another 150 from Nottingham, York, Manchester, Oxford, Essex and Birmingham. They
blitz the seat and then there is a free curry and beer afterwards. Transport is free, and hotels are block booked for the cheapest rates. In Newark on Saturday night, grassroots darling Eric Pickles was there to get the troops - most of whom are students – thumping the tables. Though his speech was interrupted by the same lascivious young couple arriving late and looking a little flustered. Tory MP Robert Halfon was handing out cigars and I made my excuses and left before it descended into a sambuca fuelled
romp in a local nightclub.
‘It isn’t hard to get people to sign up to this’ Clarke tells me. ‘These kids
want to give Labour a kicking and then go out afterwards. It’s the organisation element that is so important.’ Having lost a gritty campaign in Tooting against Labour’s Sadiq Khan in 2010, Clarke was booted off the approved candidates list by the then Party Chairman Sayeeda Warsi, and has as much invested in the success of this road-trip offshoot as Shapps does in the project as a whole.
‘It’s entirely in the PM’s hands whether I do this or a different cabinet duty,
it's up to him,’ Shapps says in a wearily rehearsed tone when I mention the looming reshuffle. Whoever runs the David Cameron Twitter account was clearly pleased with Saturday’s turnout though, with the PM’s online persona proclaiming: ‘Great work @Team2015’.
If this is the first sign of fruit from Shapps’ campaign reforms, it could not have come at a better time for him. ‘My biggest worry of all? It’s not any of that. It's what happens in 2016. For starters we can't call it Team 2015, or maybe we can – like the 1922 Committee, which is still called that even though it's retrospective. Serious point though, whatever job I do, to win elections we need to work like a modern responsive movement,’ he concludes, sounding a lot like Jim Messina.