James Forsyth

The Tories needed to be negative

The Tories needed to be negative
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There is only one way the Tories can lose the election and that is if it becomes a referendum on them rather than a choice between them and the government. We are in such an anti-politics moment that the electorate is unlikely to give a positive endorsement to any politician or political party. This—not the poor choice of photo—was the real problem with the Tories’ opening ad of the year: it invited voters to judge Cameron in isolation. Cameron is the biggest asset the Tories have but he is their biggest asset when contrasted with Gordon Brown. This is why I think Daniel Finkelstein is wrong to argue that the Tories should eschew negative campaigning. They need to remind voters what the alternative to them is.

Danny is critical of the Tory death tax campaign. But I think that campaign was necessary and of critical strategic importance. The national social care service was just the most extreme example of Brown promising the voters additional services but not explaining how they would be paid for. Brown’s tactic was then to challenge the Tories to commit to matching Labour’s commitment. The Tories were then left in a quandary. If they refused to do so, Labour would run around saying the Tories would take away said service. But if they did commit, they would be lumbered with a ruinously expensive new area of spending in government. Indeed, Labour is making these reckless promises precisely because it doesn’t expect to have to implement them. What the death tax campaign did was shift the debate back to how all these schemes were going to be paid for. If the Tories hadn’t done it, Brown would have carried on in this vein for the whole campaign.  

One thing I do agree with Danny on is that Cameron shouldn’t be used to deliver these negative attacks; George Osborne was right that the principal should spend his time delivering the positive side of the message.

The man the Tories should be using for these negative attacks is Ken Clarke. He’s got the right style and enough gravitas to deliver them. As someone on the right of the party said to me on Monday, if we’re going to have to have Clarke in the Cabinet blocking progress on a whole bunch of issues we might as well make full use of his considerable political talents during the campaign.