Surveying the battlefield: The Conservatives
In a series of blogs we’ll be looking beyond the party leaders to the teams behind the scenes. From student door knockers to £10k an hour consultants we’ll be opening the hood of the Election 2015 campaign machines.
The team: Lynton Crosby, an Australian lobbyist and Communications consultant, is now a well-known name thanks to his position as Tory campaign guru. He is apparently behind the single-issue focus of the party’s General Election campaign — the relentless focus on the “long term economic plan.” He’s also known to favour some volleys of negative campaigning; indeed Labour sources have speculated to the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman that he may have ordered defence secretary Michael Fallon to launch the assault on Miliband’s credibility, in which he claimed that Miliband would stab the nation in the back and bow to SNP demands on scrapping Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Many Tories are bored stiff with him, and the most notable outlet for their rebellion has been “the good right,” a project set up by the Times columnist Tim Mongtomerie and the YouGov president Stefan Shakespeare to try and get the Tories to talk about nicer things like jobs (http://immersive.sh/thegoodright/), and good education for all. They’ve staged key interventions from figures like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson.
Jim Messina, a former Obama advisor, is another top foreign hire, though he has apparently played a fairly peripheral role. The Tory in charge of the campaign is Chairman Grant Shapps.
David Cameron’s lead spin doctor is Craig Oliver — Andy Coulson’s replacement as Director of Communications for Downing Street. He’s a former broadcaster, and Cameron’s communications operation throughout this parliament has been known for its broadcast focus. One trademark is the way the Prime Minister has apparently been briefed to leave on-camera interviews the instant they’re over; notice how he’ll always position himself almost out of shot. TV sources speculate that his team may think it makes him look decisive.
Both the main parties, of course, have full, well-staffed press offices — the Tories is called Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ).
The Tories are notable, too, for having some very talented spinners outside of the No10/CCHQ Coterie. Rupert Harrison, George Osborne’s spin doctor, is one example — he is hugely respected within the party, and is a master not only at coming up with economic policy, but at briefing it to lobby journalists in just the way the government wants to spin it. Thea Rogers, an aide to Osborne who is credited with reviving his image from its 2012 trough, is also extremely effective, though reportedly feared within the treasury. Osborne is exceptionally powerful, and some of his favoured candidates have seen their careers skyrocket over the last five years.
The strategy: A big, guns-blazing air war which tries to make up for a weaker ground war. They put a lot of emphasis on social media too; they spend a lot on Facebook advertising — sometimes over 100k a month — and the general consensus is it isn’t getting them far. To combat the fact that their membership — with an average age of about 68 — is the oldest of any party apart from Ukip, they’ve put together a crack team of young activists called #team2015 who specialise in hitting target seats with big campaigning days led by high profile cabinet ministers. Twickenham, interestingly, is a seat you won’t hear the Tories shouting about much in public, but it has been receiving a particularly large number of them, which is worrying for poor old Vince Cable.
A key focus of their campaign at every level has historically been Ed Miliband. Seizing on the fact that throughout much of this parliament the public is relatively sympathetic to Labour but thinks Miliband is useless, they try to portray him as weak and incompetent with every chance they get. Some Tories are now worried this has backfired — since the public had a chance to see Ed perform in the TV debates, his personal ratings have been improving. Nobody could be as rubbish as the Ed Miliband the Tories set up in the public’s minds.
Key “air war” tactics: do they need them, with 90 per cent of the press on their side? That’s possibly a bit unfair, and Lynton Crosby’s influence has led to their “competence vs chaos” message and their promise of a “long term economic plan” — easily the two most recognisable political messages in Britain. They also know that their second biggest asset after trust on the economy is Cameron himself. He has a high personal rating and people think he looks and smells like a Prime Minister. They never lose an opportunity to boost his world leader credentials — huge amounts of effort went into getting him into photos with Obama earlier this year, and more recently he made sure to namecheck a range of international meetings he’d attended in his manifesto launch speech.
Ground tactics: This is where they are weak — beyond “team 2015,” the Tories aren’t much good at getting out and hitting voters. A recent poll of Tory-Labour marginals by the pollster and former Tory Chairman Lord Ashcroft found that in some seats the Tories had contacted half as many voters as Labour.
Secret weapon: George Osborne. As a spinner, the man is remarkable. He can find a way to undercut any Labour policy you want. He did it with stamp duty reform (which was a kind of Tory mansion tax) last Autumn as well as the proposed changes to stop hereditary non-doms.