Conservative Diary

Closing the deal

7 Mar 2010 10:52:29

It's time to stop apologising for being Conservative

RedMeat The über-modernisers' idea that the main Tory challenge is to avoid being offensive is raised (yet again) by two columnists in today's newspapers:

Andrew Rawnsley's column in today's Observer:

""Vote for change" is the cliched but simple Tory election slogan. It ought to be their most powerful cry against a 13-year-old government. Yet it will be robbed of much of its potency if voters look at the Tories and conclude that they are offering only to turn the clock back. I asked the Tory party chairman, Eric Pickles, what was the single greatest electoral vulnerability of the Conservatives. He replied without hesitation: "Same old Tories.""

Matthew d'Ancona in The Sunday Telegraph:

"[The Conservative Party] is seen – or used to be seen – as a club, a pressure group for the privileged, a self-appointed elite that believes it is entitled to rule... I agree with those who say that the specifics of the Ashcroft case will be quickly forgotten. But the damage is already done. The process is incremental: the Deripaska affair and George Osborne’s yacht-fondling, Zac Goldsmith’s non-dom status, the Joanne Cash episode, and Sir Nicholas Winterton’s declaration that standard-class rail passengers are “a totally different type of people... Each story does a little more to confirm the voters’ residual fear that the Tory party is a political front for a gang of people who want to govern so they can do the hell they like."

Both columnists are wrong. Over the last 24 hours Guido has done a good job of taking on this constant wish to apologise for being Conservative. I also had a tentative go on Friday.

In starting the Renewing One Nation unit and helping IDS start the Centre for Social Justice I'm fully committed to a broader and more authentic conservatism. The shields of ConHome point to the need for breadth. Becoming the party of one nation again is a huge prize. But I always argued that we needed to broaden rather than transform the party. The rediscovered commitments on poverty, education, healthcare and the environment needed to be integrated with the more familiar commitments on fighting crime, lowering taxes, protecting the nation's borders. It's the 'And theory' that I've banged on about constantly.

If only the party leadership had simultaneously talked about Europe, tax, crime and immigration alongside civil liberties, protecting the NHS, helping the poorest people of the world and candidate diversity we would not be in such an opinion poll pickle now.  The Right of the party would never have got so unhappy. Fewer voters would be confused as to what the party stands for. There would be less opportunity for the media to present the party as u-turning on strategy - now that candidates are finally being allowed to mention voters' number two issue, immigration.

Screen shot 2010-03-07 at 10.26.55 Today's BPIX poll for the Mail on Sunday (see right and scroll to bottom of this page for details) suggests voters are twice as likely to favour the Guido/Montgomerie bloggers' view than the Rawnsley/d'Ancona dead tree press view. Twice as many voters say that the Tories' number one weakness is that we are lacking a clear message. That's twice as many as say that the top weakness is that the party hasn't changed*. In other words it's time for less red Toryism and more red meat Toryism.

The same survey also finds that a tougher approach to crime and immigration are the top two issues that would encourage someone to vote Conservative**.

The good news is that the Tories do have strong policies on immigration, crime... and taxation. We now need to deploy them.

In terms of clarity of message there has been much improvement in the last seven days. Six messages may still be too many though. I'd have three messages on every leaflet:

(1) something on the economy, emphasising how Brown has failed on controlling debt, cutting waste and regulating the banks;

(2) something on crime and immigration; and

(3) something on protecting the NHS and the most vulnerable.

Tim Montgomerie

* The Tories certainly have changed btw. See the pledges to protect the poorest and the NHS. On civil liberties the party is very, very different from the Michael-Howard-as-Home-Secretary era (although possibly less in step with mainstream public opinion). The parliamentary party will be less male and less white. The party is also much more liberal on gay rights.

** The top finding from BPIX is also very interesting: 45% think a hung parliament will damage the UK economy. Only 23% say it won't. That's a vital issue to play up in Lib/Con marginals.

28 Jan 2010 16:19:38

What was missing from ConHome's 'Closing the deal' series?

Starting on Monday I listed ten things that CCHQ should do to close the deal with voters. 1, 4, 8 and 9 are, on reflection, the most important ones:

Closingthedeal-1 Closing the deal 1/10: This election is a choice between a hung parliament and a strong Conservative government [It must be a top, top message of our campaign].

Closing the deal 2/10: Prepare, prepare and prepare for the debates

Closing the deal 3/10: Set out five clear principles for budget reduction

Closing the deal 4/10: Define the limit on net immigration

Closing the deal 5/10: Distinctive policies on crime, political ethics and tax [In restrospect I should have focused this one on MPs' expenses and Tory campaign literature must realise that the issue hasn't gone away].

Closing the deal 6/10: Big regional roles for the big beasts

Closing the deal 7/10: Cameron should join Twitter and soon

Closing the deal 8/10: Lively campaign websites for key voter groups [The big missing ingredient from CCHQ's new media operation is an integration of campaigning and news].

Closing the deal 9/10: Build better relations with MPs, journalists and other friends

Closing the deal 10/10: Make 'Cameron the movie'

What would you have added?

Tim Montgomerie

27 Jan 2010 17:15:00

Closing the deal 10/10: Make 'Cameron the movie'

Remember Kinnock the movie?

It was groundbreaking for the time (if a touch cheesy) but, at ten minutes, a little too long perhaps. David Cameron is the party's biggest asset (well, second biggest asset if you count Labour's record of failure) and he should be front and centre in our campaign. I hope CCHQ are making a video about his life, his family and his vision for the country.

Tim Montgomerie

27 Jan 2010 16:01:30

Closing the deal 9/10: Build better relations with MPs, journalists and other friends

James Forsyth writes an excellent politics column for The Spectator - a product of good contacts and intelligent observation. Up until today he has tended to pull his punches but not with his latest piece.

Screen shot 2010-01-27 at 15.36.58

Punch one: "When David Cameron and George Osborne move between their suite of offices at the eastern end of the parliamentary estate and the Commons chamber they do so with a pomp that would not embarrass a medieval monarch. A crowd of attendants accompanies them, constantly changing positions but never disrupting the order: staffer, Cameron, staffer, Osborne, staffer. The party moves through the corridors at breakneck speed, heads thrown back, staring into the middle distance rather than looking around at their colleagues. This display certainly succeeds in getting them noticed. But to the Tory MPs whom they march past without even a glance, the whole procession symbolises not power but the remoteness and arrogance of those who are running the party."

Punch two: "By rights, Tory MPs should adore the men who are about to end their 13 years in the political wilderness. Three successive leaders have led the Tories to defeat. Now, Mr Cameron is about to take them to victory in a campaign masterminded by his shadow chancellor, Mr Osborne. But talking to backbench MPs, one is struck by the lack of love for either of them. The reason for this is simple: the infantry feel underappreciated and ignored. As one backbencher told me in exasperation this week, ‘the Cameron machine doesn’t listen to anyone’ — and, worse, it doesn’t even pretend to listen. Even members of the shadow Cabinet can occasionally be found asking journalists for clues as to what the party leadership is up to."

Punch three: "For all his talk about devolving power, Mr Cameron has as Tory leader centralised power at every opportunity. It is a long-standing joke that anyone who works as one of Mr Cameron’s aides automatically outranks any shadow Cabinet member. But this joke is too close to the bone now for many members of the shadow Cabinet. Andrew Lansley was infuriated when his changes weren’t made to the Tories’ draft health manifesto, leading to a slew of stories about Tory splits and U-turns. Others have taken to firing off irate emails when policy is announced without their knowledge. "

The article goes on in the same vein.

James is spot on in what he writes.  I'm amazed at the number of key think tank leaders, MPs and journalists who have next to no contact with the key members of the Cameron team.

As James writes in his column (not yet online) a failure to nurture key relations doesn't matter much when you have a double digit opinion poll lead. It'll matter a great deal when the leadership needs supporters in the press and on the backbenches.

In an insightful column for PR Week Week Tara Hamilton-Miller notes that the political honeymoon is a shortening phenomenon. Blair had three years, she writes. Sarkozy had eighteen months. Obama has had less than a year. Cameron may need allies quicker than he thinks. I suggest three key urgent steps that need to be taken:

  1. The drawing up of a list of the 100 people Cameron most needs to nurture. A little bit of face time does make a big difference. I know of one political commentator who has been decidedly more positive about the Tory leadership after getting some quality time. Cameron's diary is already full but he does too much of the party's big events. He should do less (so protecting the specialness of his interventions) and his big beasts need to do more. That should free up his diary a little.

  2. Promote one or two of Graham Brady, David Davis, Mark Field, Bernard Jenkin, Patrick Mercer or Hugo Swire to the frontbench. Up until now Cameron has not rehabilitated any of the frontbenchers who in some way or other he has fallen out with. He needs to show that there is forgiveness and a way back under his leadership for talented individuals.

  3. Restart the External Relations Unit. At the end of 2008 the party ran into financial difficulties and cut the CCHQ-based outreach that was taking place with third party groups, notably charities. That needs to be restarted. Any Conservative government will have plenty of enemies in the Labour-stuffed quangocracy. It'll need some friends too and it needs to start looking after those friends and feeding them with time and information.

Tim Montgomerie

25 Jan 2010 15:57:59

Closing the deal 8/10: Lively campaign websites for key voter groups

There are key election battles in the regions. There are the day-by-day, hour-by-hour national messages. There are key national events such as the election debates. There are also the battles for key interest groups. The internet provides better-than-ever-before opportunities to micro-target key constituencies such as churchgoers... servicemen and their families... animal welfare enthusiasts... disability campaigners...

As I've already blogged, the Conservative Party has particularly potent policies for churchgoers.

An attractive website setting out those pledges in an attractive format, backed up with video messages, a newsy blog, and Search Engine-optimised could be an important campaign tool. In 2001 I arranged for the distribution of 300,000 Tory newsletters to churches. They were called News for Churches. The internet can enable the same to happen at a fraction of the cost.

There are just 101 days to the likely election date. CCHQ has fifty days to identify, say, ten pivotal voter groups and find an MP/ candidate and voluntary group to run a brilliant website for that group. David Burrowes MP, Fiona Bruce and the Conservative Christian Fellowship would be a perfect team to run a website for churchgoers. I'd help too!

Tim Montgomerie

25 Jan 2010 14:58:12

Closing the deal 7/10: David Cameron should join Twitter (and soon)

Screen shot 2010-01-24 at 21.03.43According to the table above, just released by Tweetminster,  the Conservatives are at a disadvantage on Twitter. @MayorofLondon and @Conservatives are our two biggest players but @DowningStreet (which hopefully we'll soon inherit) and @SarahBrown10 have many fifteen times as many followers.

I'm not sure what limits there might be on Labour using @DowningStreet during the election (the Left are already pre-emptively trying to curb Boris' use of his account) but, as @DavidTBreaker has argued, the Tories need a big hitter on Twitter. That has to be David Cameron.

He will need to address that "tw*t" gaffe (his first Tweet could be a self-deprecating "I was a twit not to tweet until now") but he could soon be reaching hundreds of thousands of people during an election campaign with 140 character messages. I think Cameron would be good at it. It'll be a great medium for communicating in a warm, direct way.

Mr Cameron was cautious when I asked him if he'd join Twitter earlier today (watch here) but I'm convinced it's too good an opportunity to miss.


25 Jan 2010 13:00:34

Closing the deal 6/10: Big regional roles for the big beasts

Sometimes the Conservative Party looks like a one man band. It isn't. The Conservatives now have most of the big talents. We've got Boris, Hague, Clarke, Osborne, Eric Pickles, Chris Grayling, Sayeeda Warsi, Caroline Spelman, John Major (who has had some terrific media hits recently), IDS, David Davis.

We should make a virtue of that broad team and use all of them in the election campaign, giving David Cameron some rest from the limelight and ample space to prepare for the all important debates.

FourBBs If I had to pick the four biggest beasts that will be helpful on the campaign trail I'd put Boris as our big hitter in London, Hague as a big hitter in the South West (with Liam Fox) and Yorkshire, Ken Clarke (with Caroline Spelman) in the Midlands, and Eric Pickles* as lead man across Lancashire and Yorkshire (supported by Sayeeda Warsi). Local newspapers and regional broadcasters enjoy high trust levels from their readers, listeners and viewers. The regional media war will be less noticed by the Westminster class than internet activity but invisibly will sway more votes (at least for this election).

One of my favourite Conservatives is Lord (Michael) Bates. Former MP for Langbaugh and the brains behind Campaign North he's a super talent. He should lead for the party in the North East (with Greg Clark).

Tim Montgomerie

* Chris Grayling should be lead attack dog from CCHQ.

25 Jan 2010 12:59:00

Closing the deal 5/10: Distinctive policies on crime, political ethics and tax

We have to combat the "all you politicians are the same... voting won't change anything" chorus of the disillusioned and disenchanted. We need a leaflet/ a poster/ a YouTube to show that voting Conservative will make a meaningful difference to people's lives.

Recently, I had one go at such a message:


I was encouraged over the weekend to read that the Tories are considering prison ships.  We'll need such ships if we are to fulfil our high impact promise to end Labour's early release scheme.

I'm also convinced that expenses will much bigger on the doorstep than many Westminster politicians realise. The issue may no longer dominate the headlines but it hasn't gone away. Every Tory candidate should be armed with a tough set of clean-up-politics pledges and their own personal codes of conduct. A power to recall unethical MPs should be one of the party's pledges.

Tim Montgomerie

25 Jan 2010 11:58:15

Closing the deal 4/10: Define the limit on net immigration

Screen shot 2010-01-24 at 22.56.58 If the economy (addressed an hour ago) is the number one General Election issue, voters told YouGov and MigrationWatch that immigration was their second most important issue.

The Conservatives have been gently raising the volume on this issue recently - and Chris Grayling made a good intervention two weeks ago, promising to tackle the biggest vulnerability in our borders; the student visa system.

One of the other crucial ingredients in the Tory commitment to end Labour's uncontrolled immigration policy is the introduction of a cap on the inflow from outside the EU. It may be impossible to set the cap exactly because the party has rightly promised to consult with business and the key public services on their needs for specialist and seasonal workers. We could, however, announce an overall target for net immigration. A commitment, for example, to limit net immigration to an average of 50,000 per year - within an annual flexible rage of 30,000 to 70,000 would be indicative to voters while allowing employers flexibility to influence the inflow of economic migrants.

The announcement should be made soon - to avoid being made in the heat of an election campaign - and ideally after a couple of good opinion polls. The worst time would be after a bad opinion poll and the announcement would then risk being presented as a panic measure.

The announcement could be made by Chris Grayling, Damian Green and Sayeeda Warsi. 

Tim Montgomerie

25 Jan 2010 10:58:43

Closing the deal 3/10: Set out five clear principles for budget reduction

Britain's fiscal crisis will be at the heart of the campaign. No party has yet said enough about how they will eliminate the budget deficit. Without going into too much detail (Cameron twice avoided Nick Robinson's questions this morning on the scale of the necessary adjustment) the Tories could issue a statement of five principles that will guide their approach to deficit reduction. Here's a first draft of five things that might be said:

  1. Honesty. Four years of pain lie ahead but Britain can be very strong again once the medicine has been taken.
  2. Fairness. Nearly everyone, beginning with politicians but protecting the very poorest, must share in the pain of repaying Labour's debts. All will benefit when the deficit is brought under control.
  3. Growth. A budget will be held within fifty days of coming to power and its primary aim will be to get the British economy growing again. We will encourage taxpayers and job creators to stay in Britain and invest in Britain.
  4. Spending. We will open up the books as soon as we come into office and we will publish a 'Domesday audit' of Labour's legacy. We will incentivise every public sector worker to help us identify waste and unnecessary services. We will work with the public employees and unions to bring about more equity between the pay, pensions and conditions of the public and private sectors.
  5. Taxation. Any tax increases will expire by 2015*. We will cut inheritance tax and family taxation by the end of the parliament and begin a process of simpler taxation in our first budget.

Tim Montgomerie

* Matthew Elliott of The TaxPayers' Alliance has suggested calling these temporary taxes, a Debt Levy; a Levy to be abolished once the debt burden is down.