If you want to know the mood of the Tory MPs then look at the last opinion poll. When opinion polls started showing that the Yes campaign might win, a dark cloud descended across the parliamentary Conservative Party.
Mark Pritchard was the first Tory to publicly warn David Cameron of the consequences of a Yes vote but the important work to get the Conservative leader to realise the seriousness of the situation was carried out behind-the-scenes. Tory MPs were hearing that the No campaign was struggling to raise money. Tory donors were being told that the priority remained the funding of CCHQ and its operations. Tory Chairman Sayeeda Warsi was questioned by Bernard Jenkin about this in January at a full meeting of the 1922 Committee. At about the same time the Prime Minister met with the executive of the 1922 in 10 Downing Street. It was an awkward meeting. Concerns were expressed about the vigour with which AV was being fought. The Prime Minister was warned that Conservative HQ was “sleepwalking to disaster”. He was told he was set to lose the referendum and that, if he did, the consequences for his authority inside the Conservative Party would be serious. He kept shifting awkwardly in his seat. This was his Downing Street bunker, where his inner team, populated by friends he has known for twenty years, runs the show. He has never been a man who enjoys being told he’s wrong.
The dangers of a Yes vote were spelt out in cold terms by Paul Goodman in an influential article for ConservativeHome:
“In short, the cry will be: "First he messes up the election. Now he's messed up the referendum. We'll never govern again on our own - and I'm going to lose my seat." Even in such circumstances, the Government is unlikely to collapse. Both Tory MPs, furious with the Prime Minister, and Liberal Democrat ones, rejuvenated by a "Yes" vote, would have a common reason not to pull down the pillars of the Coalition temple: both would fear being ousted at the polls. But Cameron would have lost the confidence of the Parliamentary Party. New, "collective leadership" would be demanded. There'd probably be a Cabinet reshuffle, and not on his terms.His authority would be weakened and the Government vulnerable to events. Inevitably, there'd be talk of a challenge, but there's no obvious successor. At any rate, the Prime Minister would be in danger of becoming what Nigel Birch once called one of his heroes, Harold Macmillan: the lost leader.”
We were still in the middle of a period when 10 Downing Street was in denial. Some didn’t realise the campaign was heading for defeat. Others didn’t mind if it was. Enthusiasm for the Coalition, among Cameroons, was at its height. The Spectator’s James Forsyth had reported that a Cabinet Minister and senior aide to the Prime Minister backed AV. There were suggestions that some leading Tories – notably Michael Gove – should back AV to help build a new Liberal Conservative era. The Times’ Daniel Finkelstein, a close confidante of George Osborne, even argued (although actively opposed to AV) that AV might solidify Cameronism. He argued that the only Conservatism that could win an election where second and third preferences counted was Cameron’s detoxified Conservatism. Philip Blond, always anxious to please 10 Downing Street, argued that a Yes vote would “stop extremists” and applied (unsuccessfully) for a grant to the Electoral Reform Society to make a full case for AV.
The penny only started to drop when veteran Tories in the House of Lords started to protest in very large numbers. Former Cabinet minister John Moore and Baroness Trumpington voted against the frontbench for the first time ever when the referendum bill came before them. They argued that a change in Britain’s electoral system should only become law if it was supported by 40% of the British people. Cameron said no. At the Conservative Party Board, members of the voluntary party told co-chairmen Lord Feldman and Baroness Warsi that this referendum was not an ordinary mid-term election. It wasn’t a Scottish election, a local election or a by-election. It was about the Tories’ chance of winning at every general election to come.
It wasn’t just the usual suspects either. Nick Boles, caricatured as a moderniser, went to see the Chancellor to warn him that David Cameron wouldn’t be removed as Tory leader if AV was passed but the parliamentary party would lose confidence in him. They would, Boles warned, “work to rule”. Eric Pickles, Iain Duncan Smith and Liam Fox mobilised and eventually the party leadership understood.
Cameron walked into George Osborne’s office to tell him that he’d just been told that he’d lose the leadership if AV passed. Cameron thought it funny that MPs could be so melodramatic. Osborne’s face didn’t move. We can’t rule it out, he said, staring at Cameron in a moment where the gravity of the situation dawned on the Prime Minister.
The crunch meeting came in the middle of February when Matthew Elliott, the Chief Executive of the No campaign and founder of the hugely successful TaxPayers’ Alliance, presented a ‘Plan B’ for the campaign at No. 10. Elliott hadn’t been able to run a proper campaign because he had no money. He hadn’t been able to hire staff, organise mailouts and develop a Get Out The Vote operation because he had been spending all of his time trying to get funds for a skeleton campaign. Doors had been politely closing in his face across the City.
‘Plan B’ involved exploiting a loophole in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act which states that the Electoral Commission can only give official designation to a ‘lead’ campaign group on one side if there’s a credible campaign on the other side to officially designate. Official designation gives the campaign access to a certain amount of taxpayer funding for operational costs, a Royal Mail free delivery to every voter, and two Referendum Broadcasts on the main television channels and radio stations. This loophole was exploited by the No campaign in this year’s Welsh referendum, who could not afford print leaflets or produce broadcasts for their campaign against further powers for the Welsh Assembly.
Elliott’s presentation noted the downsides for non-designation (accusations of ‘dirty tricks’, restricting information to voters, losing moral high ground), but noted that there could be upsides (praise for saving taxpayers’ money, capturing ‘anti-politics’ ground, a return to honest campaigning). His presentation also painted a worse-case scenario if the campaign went for designation (‘We fail to raise the money and cannot afford a free delivery or decent referendum broadcasts. The Yes campaign mount an expensive, slick campaign, giving them the ‘big mo’). It concluded that, as things currently stood with the funding, there was little option but to go for Plan B.
This lead to a number of meetings involving Lord Leach, the No campaign’s Chairman, Matthew Elliott and key people at No 10, including the Prime Minister, Stephen Gilbert and Lord Feldman. Plan B was not acceptable politically to the Prime Minister. Cameron had given an undertaking to Nick Clegg that the campaign would be fought properly. At this point, a switch was flicked. Peter Cruddas became No to AV’s Treasurer and the money started flowing. The PM instructed CCHQ to organise at least one major AV activity event every week for him. After this, the No campaign began properly functioning with its two key aims: To convince every Tory to vote no without undermining the effort to divide the Labour vote. Kick off was late but not fatally so.
Blue and Red together: Jeremy Hunt and Margaret Beckett at the No2AV phone bank.
After this the No campaign began properly functioning with its two key aims:
To convince every Tory to vote no without undermining the effort to divide the Labour vote.
Kick off was late but not fatally so.
Downing Street insist today that they always intended to fight the campaign in the way they did. Don’t believe it. As late as February George Osborne was strangely detached from the referendum campaign and months out-of-date in his understanding of who was running the campaign.