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As Labour steps up its attack on the Coalition, the Government's in danger of disarming unilaterally

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By Paul Goodman

On August 11, Chris Huhne and Sayeeda Warsi held a joint press conference attacking Labour.  Both used the slogan: "One party made this mess. And our two parties will sort it out."  Warsi said -

"Today is just the start of a summer of scrutiny into Labour's legacy. We are going to let ordinary people see Labour's total lack of respect for taxpayers' money. That's why as Conservative Party Chairman I'm releasing a video highlighting Labour's great failure. Chris and the Lib Dems will be doing their bit."

Almost exactly a month has passed.  Summer has continued.  The scrutiny has not.  There've been no further joint press conferences attacking Labour; no branded campaign exposing its legacy of debt and waste - no focused drive fixing the blame for the coming spending scaleback where it belongs.

In the meantime, the Labour and media assault on the Government over Coulson and "cuts" is inventive and relentless.  But there's been no effective counter-attack.

Why?  There are three main reasons.

  • The Government is a Coalition.  It's easier for one Party to attack another than to co-ordinate two to do the same.
  • Too many Conservatives assume that ours is the natural party of office - and that government, therefore, is primarily about administration rather than politics.  This is wrong, and surprising after 13 years in Opposition and three election defeats.  None the less, there's a tendency among Ministers to believe that if they set out their individual programmes and plans, the electorate will listen.  But a package of policies isn't a message for voters.  If the Government doesn't have one, the electorate can't hear it.
  • Downing Street's not doing enough to discourage this tendency.  After the era of Campbell and McBride, a clean-up was overdue.  Ministers are right to want to end sofa government.  But there's a difference between welcoming the civil service back into the room, so to speak, and allowing them to arrange the furniture.  As Tim's pointed out previously, the Government cut back on special advisers has blunted its political edge.  In political terms, the Coalition's in danger of disarming unilaterally.

So what should be done?

  • The Coalition needs a simple message.  As the attack on "Tory cuts" continues, the Government's task is clear.  The voters are going to blame someone for what happens.  So Ministers must ensure that the blame is pinned where it belongs - with the Party that left Britain with record debt and waste.  This requires a message to hammer that blame home.  As a starter, I suggest: "We're clearing up the mess that Labour left behind".  It's not perfect, and ConservativeHome readers can almost certainly do better, but the message should surely be in that territory.
  • Downing Street must require Ministers to communicate the message every time they make a media appearance.  Modern politics is highly centralised.  So the keys to communicating the message lie in Number 10, not CCHQ - especially since this Government's a Coalition.  It's therefore up to Downing Street to grip the problem.  It must let Ministers know communicating the Government's message is a key factor in promotion and retention, and that it will be monitoring performance.  To do this would require a bit of a culture change.  But it's the kind of transformation that George Osborne, the Cabinet's sharpest political operator, could help effect.  Treasury duties may make this impossible, but Number 10 should be searching for a way to make it happen.
  • The Party needs to find and unleash attack dogs.  Prescott, Tom Watson and Chris Bryant are among the Labour MPs presently lining up to assail Ministers.  At different levels, these are Labour's attack beasts.  I've already paid tribute to John Prescott's energy and dedication in fighting the Government when he could be putting his feet up - a model that Ministers should follow. The Party has been a bit light on finding its own since 1997.  In previous years of Conservative Government, Michael Heseltine, Norman Tebbit, Kenneth Baker, Chris Patten (remember "Labour's Double Whammy") and other were adept, in their very different styles and ways, at somehow turning every interview and opportunity into an attack on Labour.  It isn't mission impossible.
  • The whole Parliamentary Party needs to be integrated into communicating the message.  Sayeeda Warsi and CCHQ will be up for it if Downing Street makes its wishes clear.  Mentioning attack dogs brings familiar names to mind: David Davis, John Redwood.  But there are others at the senior end of the range who are clever, experienced, sharp and cool : Peter Lilley, Michael Fallon, Stephen Dorrell (in the interests of Party balance).  Among Ministers, Chris Grayling was a very effective pursuer of Labour before and after his spell as Shadow Commons Leader.  Among former Shadow Ministers, Julian Lewis stands out as an expert operator in the Commons Chamber.  Among the new Conservative intake, I think almost at random of Conor Burns, Angie Bray, Charles Elphicke, George Eustace, Andrew Griffiths, Priti Patel and Andrew Percy - all of whom, with others, are more than willing to take Labour on in the Commons.
As I say, it's not mission impossible.  If this Parliament runs its full course, there's plenty of time.  All that's needed is for Downing Street to tell CCHQ and Downing Street what's required - hammering home the message that the Goverment's clearing up the mess Labour left behind.  From the point of view of communicating it, there are some advantages in being a Coalition.  For example, it gives the Government two Party Conferences to help do so, not one.


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