For the Tories, it seemed as if August would be the cruellest month. Earlier in the year, much of the party had embarked on a perilous undertaking. It had decided to allow itself the hazardous luxury of hope. Admittedly, only a few Tory MPs had thought that the party could win outright at the next election, but there was a widespread feeling that at least they were back in the game. The phrase ‘all to play for’ was often heard.
Then, once again, the game seemed to slip away. The rise of Ukip and the failure to see off the Liberals rattled Tory MPs, and when the party became nervous it reverted to its bad old self-destructive ways. There was no reason why a story about young candidates complaining about bed-blocking backbenchers should have made headlines for several days, but for the fact that a number of Tory MPs never seem happier than when laying into fellow Tories. In the mid-Nineties, John Major once told his MPs that, when in trouble, a lot of them would automatically form a circle and open fire — after turning inward. In early August, it seemed that nothing had changed.
Yet there has been a fresh outbreak of optimism in Central Office for a surprising reason: focus groups. The Tories have always been ambivalent about focus groups, although they were the first party to use them, back in the early Eighties. In those days, focusing was known as ‘VALS’ research, standing for values, attitudes and lifestyles. The aim was to reach behind the quantitative techniques of traditional opinion polling and to make qualitative assessments of what people were really saying and thinking. But many Tories remained suspicious, especially when Labour took up focus-grouping on a grand scale, under Peter Mandelson’s direction. Senior Tories saw an advantage in contrasting their purity with Labour’s opportunism. They wished to be able to say that when Tony Blair felt the need to form an opinion, he would commission some opinion research — whereas the Tory party derived its opinions from its principles. Although the party used focus groups, it did so in a secret, almost guilty way.
That is no longer true. Over the past few months, the Tories have invested a great deal of time in focus-grouping, under the direction of Steve Hilton, who is in charge of opinion research. Mr Hilton has been concentrating on Labour voters in the Tories’ target seats. He has devoted almost every evening in August to focus groups.
He is clear on one point. The party is emphatically not using the groups to decide on what its policy should be. The aim is to help it craft the language to express those policies so that they connect with the voters. There is one exception, and it is a curious one: tax. Most Tories, including Mr Hilton, would like to promise the voters that a Howard government would cut tax. But there is a problem. The voters obstinately refuse to believe it. They insist that even if tax A were reduced, tax B would have to increase to pay for it. They are also ready to believe that the Tories could only finance tax cuts by cutting services. Indeed, some of them think that the result of a Tory pledge to cut taxes would be worse services, and no tax cuts.
The weight of the evidence has impressed even the most enthusiastic tax cutters in Central Office. So there is likely to be a surprising outcome. The Tory party may be the first opposition in history to go into an election with a covert plan for tax cuts.
In other respects, the focus groups have been more encouraging. They have revealed a rampant disillusion with new Labour in general and Tony Blair in particular, to the extent that the Tories do not see how he could ever recover public confidence. It seems that all government announcements are now greeted with cynicism and scorn. Though focus-groupers were aware that the latest figures indicate a fall in asylum applications, they all assumed that the government was rigging the figures.
Mr Hilton has met hundreds of voters who cast their ballot for Tony Blair in 2001, and are now disgusted with themselves for having done so. They fiercely resent his success in exploiting their naivety. They feel angry and betrayed. To the Tories’ pleasurable surprise, it would appear that the words ‘spin’ and ‘stealth-tax’ have broken out of the private language of Westminster and are now in common usage. In one respect, this makes life easier for Tory strategists.
There has been an internal dispute about negative campaigning. Older-fashioned Tories insist that it worked in the past, that it plays to Mr Howard’s strengths and that even if the voters claim that they do not like it, negative campaigning gets the message across. They remind the younger Tories of the runs that Labour made with sleaze and 22 Tory tax rises. But the youngsters point to the decline in turnout during the Nineties and to the extent of public disillusion. They are convinced that negative campaigning has a negative effect on those who employ it.
Yet if Mr Hilton’s focus groups are right, there is no need for the Tories to highlight a negative message. Events and the media are doing the work for them. This enables the party to concentrate on its own policies. There will be a mini-manifesto for the party conference, and its best draughtsmen are even now working on the text. They face one inevitable difficulty. They all want to ensure that this is the most brilliant manifesto ever, with fresh and exciting ideas in scintillating language. Yet most of the important ideas are not new. Tories have spent many decades projecting their ideas on choice, crime and waste; it is not easy to recharge their dramatic impact. But those who have seen the work in progress are certain that the mini-manifesto will be as good as possible.
It will need to be. The party has little more more than six months to persuade the voters. But in one respect, that task may be easier than it sounds. Unlike America, where about 90 per cent of those who will vote have made up their minds how they will do so — and the candidates will often find themselves pounding up the same garden paths between now and November — everything in Britain is much more uncertain. Millions of voters are swilling around, like a flood in search of a watercourse. That uncertainty and volatility could persist until the final hours of the general election campaign.
Every party that seems to be in trouble always claims that things are better in the marginals and that its private polling presents a more encouraging picture. Mr Howard’s Tories are no exception. But this time, they may have the glimmer of a scintilla of a point.
As Steve Hilton would be the first to admit, it would be absurd to claim that his focus groups are pointing the way to victory. But equally there is little need for the Tories to despair. Their antics early this month do not appear to have deterred that many voters. If they can break the habit of a decade and a half and spend the next few months concentrating their fire on the enemy, and not on one another, there could still be all to play for when the election comes.