Conservative Diary

Election debates

17 Jul 2011 14:19:34

Are these David Cameron's ten biggest mistakes?

By Tim Montgomerie
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IMG_2418 In today's Sunday Telegraph I list what Tory members identify as David Cameron's ten biggest mistakes since becoming Tory leader in December 2005. Each respondent were asked to list THREE errors so the numbers add up to close to 300% not 100%:

  1. Making a "cast iron" commitment to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and then abandoning that commitment: 48%
  2. Supporting climate change policies that are likely to increase energy bills: 40%
  3. Embarking on bold NHS reforms but then having to U-turn: 32%
  4. Making the Big Society a big part of the Conservatives’ electoral appeal: 25%
  5. Flirting with softer prisons and sentencing policies before U-turning: 24%
  6. Opposing grammar schools: 23%
  7. Agreement to Nick Clegg’s participation in the election debates: 22%
  8. Not making defence a spending priority: 21%
  9. Not campaigning on immigration: 20%
  10. A lack of economic policy-making before the recession, including the decision to match Labour's spending plans: 18%

If I had to pick the three biggest mistakes they would be (1), (7) and the biggest mistake of all, (10).

The Lisbon U-turn wasn't so much significant for what it said about Europe (although that did and does matter) but what it appeared to say to many voters and newspapers about Cameron's trustworthiness. I explain more in The Sunday Telegraph:

"Members remember that the binning of this pledge raised big questions about the Conservative leader’s trustworthiness. Newspapers attacked Cameron for being as cynical as Tony Blair in breaking faith with voters. If you look back at the pre-election opinion polls you can trace the slide in the Tory ratings to this “trust moment” and not, as is commonly suggested, after George Osborne had begun to set out controversial austerity measures."

Economic disarmanent and confusion throughout our time in opposition was members' tenth biggest mistake. I'd put it at the top of the list:

"Up until the economic crash, Osborne was mimicking Labour’s high-tax, high-spend policies. Even today the Tory leadership hasn’t got a powerful growth agenda. Cameron and Osborne need to be ready for the likely moment when the eurozone crisis reaches boiling point. That will be the time to pass controversial but necessary reforms to our tax, regulatory and banking systems and restore the British economy to competitiveness. After all the drama of the past two weeks, it will be economic policy that makes or breaks Cameron."

Read the full piece.

11 Jul 2011 08:38:10

The Cameron-Murdoch relationship didn't win the last election for the Tories. It helped lose it.

By Tim Montgomerie
Follow Tim on Twitter.

I've never understood why David Cameron agreed to the election debates. When you're comfortably ahead in the polls you don't agree to a potentially game changing event. You certainly don't give the third party the equal status that they normally only get in parliamentary by-elections when they can focus their limited resources in just one place. The debates weren't, of course, the only factor that meant David Cameron fell short of a Commons majority (other explanations are listed here) but they were certainly a big contributor.

The most credible explanation I've ever heard for the decision was the fact that BSkyB desperately wanted the election debates. The explanation came to me from one of Cameron's closest advisers. The Tory high command agreed to the debates with Sky enjoying equal status to the BBC and ITV as part of a general desire to keep News International happy. You may remember the endless ads on Sky News, campaigning for election debates? So, yes, I'm willing to concede that politicians can get too close to media moguls.

Most of the time, however, when politicians are appeasing the tabloids they're not appeasing Rupert Murdoch or the Barclay brothers or Lord Rothermere or Richard Desmond. They are connecting with those newspapers' readers. I took part in a BBC Five Live discussion last night when the tabloids were painted as very sinister forces in the land. When politicians kow-towed to them it was painted as if they were kow-towing to their owners. Rubbish. Britain's newspapers, unlike politicians, face daily elections. People buy them or buy something else. If they don't represent their readers a newspaper will go bust. When 'the Quad' of The Sun, Mail, Express and Telegraph campaign on the military covenant or immigration or tougher prison sentences or petrol tax they are campaigning for us and not for their owners. Britain's press is more diverse and more energetic than any other press in the world. It certainly needs cleaning up but we mustn't lose that diversity in the process.

When the remit is set for the press inquiry launched by David Cameron last week there must be a mandate to protect diversity and investigative reporting, as well as the vital issue of ethical journalistic techniques.

27 Dec 2010 08:47:43

Moment of 2010

The ConservativeHome team begins their Picks of the Year with their choice of 'Moment of 2010'.

Picture 8
Jonathan Isaby's pick
: My moment of the year has to be the Downing Street Rose Garden press conference given by the newly installed Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister on May 12th, which I was privileged to witness at first hand. The chemistry between Cameron and Clegg was palpable - leading to jokes about it being a civil partnership - and persuaded me that Clegg was serious about the Coalition being a five-year commitment. Click here to see a clip of the pair publicly sealing the Coalition deal that afternoon.

TV Debate wide centre
Tim Montgomerie's pick
: Without agreement to the election debates we would probably now have a Tory government. The debates catapulted the Liberal Democrats to by-election status. They should have been squeezed in a tight election contest between Labour and the Conservatives. Instead the campaign was dominated by the Clegg bubble. If, as Paul Goodman argues, Cameron's post-election "comprehensive offer" to the Liberal Democrats was a political moment of the decade (today's Times (£) calls it the biggest political act of the post-war period), David Cameron's agreement to debates was (predictably) the most stupid political decision for a very, very long time.

Picture 10
Paul Goodman's pick
: Easy. David Cameron's post-election announcement of May 7, in which he made his "big, open and comprehensive offer" to the Liberal Democrats. By the time he'd finished, it was evident that Cameron stood a good chance of taking his Party with him (because of the terms in which his statement was crafted), that the political momentum was with him, that Brown was unambiguously on the defensive, that a Conservative-led Government was now very likely, and that a re-alignment of British politics to the centre-right was potentially taking place. In effect, Cameron was moving to counter Roy Jenkins' vision of a re-alignment to the centre-left - a manoeuvre that Tony Blair funked making after his 1997 landslide. This could be the political moment not only of the year but of the decade or even longer.

Picture 9
Harry Phibbs' pick
: David Cameron entering Downing Street as Prime Minister for the first time.

13 Jun 2010 08:48:49

Lord Ashcroft and Labour's campaign chiefs agree that election debates cost Conservatives a majority

Today's News of the World reports that Lord Ashcroft is "to publish a devastating attack on Prime Minister David Cameron." The majority owner of ConservativeHome, former Tory Treasurer and mastermind of the party's marginal seats campaign will use a review of the general election campaign to criticise the party leadership's decision to agree to election debates and to campaign on the big society theme. ConservativeHome's own review of the General Election campaign (PDF here) also concluded that the party was damaged by (1) the agreement to debates and (2) the way the big society message eclipsed a retail message.

One "friend" of Lord Ashcroft tells the Sunday newspaper's Ian Kirby:

“We may have a Conservative Prime Minister, but Lord Ashcroft believes the election campaign was a disaster and that the blame lies with David Cameron and his coterie of advisers.”

I am aware that Lord Ashcroft is writing a review of the campaign but I have no idea if it is "devastating", as the News of the World suggests.

THE_FIRST_ELECTION_DEBATE_1 Coincidentally, Anne McElvoy writes a fascinating review of the impact of the debates for The Sunday Times. Here are some highlights:

  • "Clegg had joked he would “dance across the stage in a pink tutu” to have a chance to argue with the main parties on an equal footing."
  • "Cameron’s [debate preparation] team featured Jeremy Hunt, now culture secretary, as Clegg, “on the grounds,” said one Central Office observer, “that they are as bland as each other”. Michael Gove, a product of the BBC and The Times, played the presenters. The involvement of Hunt was to prove most useful in that his “Clegg” gave the first warning that the Tories might be facing a Lib Dem-shaped problem. Hunt bears a vague similarity to Clegg, good-looking, but not strikingly so, with a relaxed verbal delivery. He had spent Sundays watching Clegg’s performances and analysing the Lib Dem leader’s sentence structure — short and choppy. Cameron uses long sentences, rolling from one idea to the next. The difference allowed Clegg to sound irreverent and incisive next to stiff Dave and grumpy Gordon."
  • "Clegg’s team had started its run-up earliest. They knew the debates were a unique opportunity to put their man on an equal footing with the other candidates. Their Brown was played by Chris Huhne. Cameron was impersonated enthusiastically by David Laws, an experience he would later say was good preparation for his key role as Treasury axeman."
  • "The story of the first clash, which was held in Manchester, is now part of the lore of great political upsets. Clegg was the mouse that roared in front of almost 10m viewers... Clegg’s casual stance — hand in pocket but gazing directly into the camera — came across as fresh and unfettered, and earned the Lib Dems an unprecedented surge of support, especially among first-time and younger voters."
  • "By the second debate, on foreign policy, Cameron had improved. He was following advice to slow down and speak clearly and directly."
  • "Cameron’s failure to win outright was a point not lost on donors, who had filled his war chests, and internal critics whispering “Told you so”. The Tories’ decision to agree to equal status in the TV debates for the Liberal Democrats remains controversial and was a huge tactical error by Camp Cameron. Labour figures like Straw, Muir and Douglas Alexander — and Gisela Stuart, who held the Tory’s target seat Birmingham Edgbaston for Labour — all believe that without them Cameron would have had an absolute majority. “Without the debates,” Muir assesses, “the campaign would have moved from one Tory poster launch to the next, and it would have been very hard for us to get our footing or momentum.”"

McElvoy ends with this paragraph:

"Steve Hilton, whose symbolic “New Tory” bicycle now has its own parking space at Downing Street, insists that the gamble was worth it. He believes the “New Politics” the debates produced are superior to the prospect of a Tory government with a small majority, held hostage by its own right wing. “We didn’t win enough,” Hilton told friends, “but we beat Labour and we’re in No 10 doing what we want to do with people we get along with. That’s absolutely fine, it really is.”

Tim Montgomerie

30 Apr 2010 07:04:26

David Cameron, marathon man?

It's often said that the three leaders' debates have shaped this election.  The truth is the other way round.  It's the election that's shaped the leaders' debates - more and more so as each week has passed.

At the start of the campaign, voters were angry, scornful, contemptuous of the system, seeking revenge for the expenses scandal - and everything it symbolised.  Turnout was expected to be low.  As I've written before here, the electorate was thinking of the kicking the politicians rather than guarding their wallets.

In Nick Clegg, they found a boot with which to lash out.  His performance in the first debate - fresh, informal, light on detail - was pitched perfectly for the moment.  The Liberals' poll ratings soared.

David Cameron played safe in that debate.  Brown...well, he was Brown.  It seemed that we were heading straight for a hung Parliament.

I wrote here this time last week that the importance of the debates was being over-egged.  A hung Parliament could be avoided if the voters' mood changed - if they began to think of guarding their wallets rather than kicking the politicians.

The debates have been only one means of shaping that mood, and far from the most telling.  The news from Greece has had an impact.  So has the IFS report on the parties' manifestos.  So has the news of low growth in the last quarter. And so - so much more - have millions of everyday domestic happenings which don't make the news: worry in one household about whether mortgage rates will go up; fear in another of rising taxes; concern in another about climbing prices...

In the second debate, Cameron was improved.  Brown was...well, you know how he was.  Clegg's pretty tricks began to stale slightly.

But what mattered wasn't who won.  It was that between the first debate and the second, the public mood began to shift.  People began to think a bit less about the politicians and a bit more about themselves. Poll support for a hung Parliament began to fall. Commentators began to write that turnout could rise.  And Cameron helped to change that mood - proclaiming firmly that he was still campaigning on the Big Society while deftly drafting in Ken Clarke to warn of a small economy...and the dangers of a hung Parliament.

I also wrote last week that Clegg had lost momentum, and seemed to have peaked.  In last night's debate, his lightness on detail was unmissable.  Brown was...well, you know that he was even worse than you thought he could be.  And Cameron was improved still further - direct, energetic and, crucially, unwilling to shy away from classic Conservative positions on immigration, the EU and welfare reform.

I'm sticking to my guns.  What matters isn't that he won last night's debate.  It's that he has played his part in helping to change the public mood - through announcements, stump speeches, campaign visits, briefings, photocalls and interviews as well as during the debates.  Through lots of little appearances as well as three big ones.

And so we enter the last seven days with every chance that voters will go to the polls in a mood no less unhappy, but infinitely more sober and realistic, than when this election campaign began.

If they do, and Cameron can form a government as a result, he will hailed as a Tory Houdini, as the Great Survivor, as Marathon Man - the leader who escaped the grammar schools debacle; who fought off a 2007 election with that noteless conference speech; who recovered from the blunder of letting Clegg into the debates...and who hauled himself off the floor, like Eric Liddell in "Chariots of Fire", gathered speed, powered first over the finishing line, and won the debates - even though, as I say, they've mattered far, far less than those televising them would have you believe.

Paul Goodman

29 Apr 2010 22:42:43

ConHome's expert panel assesses tonight's leaders' debate


ConservativeHome re-assembled the expert panel of political commentators for a final time to react to tonight's debate. Here's what they have to say:

Michael Dobbs Michael Dobbs - Author, journalist and former Deputy Chairman of both the Conservative Party and Saatchi & Saatchi

Oh, I think I have become suddenly partisan! There are moments when elections turn. Yesterday with Gordon Brown meeting an ordinary voter was one of them, but I think tonight might have been another.

Brown was like an old dull-screen computer which simply doesn’t understand the latest software and searches round and round within itself for the right answers but comes up with nothing but meaningless lines of code. He was dreadful. The Clunking Fist went clunk.

Clegg was sweaty, faltering. I suspect he was very tired. He came up with his prepared clichés, and simply didn’t do it well. Week One has worn off, and tonight the veneer seemed desperately thin. He was often superficial, skewered over his amnesty on illegal immigration, and damaged himself with his schoolboy jibes. Tonight’s loser.

Tonight Cameron showed poise, determination, and passion. Won the argument on schools, immigration, manufacturing. Tonight’s victor, and on this basis, next week’s Prime Minister.

Charles LewingtonCharles Lewington - Managing Director of Hanover Communications and former Press Secretary to John Major

That should do the trick! DC delivered clear messages straight into the homes of former Labour voters in key marginals on rewarding hard work, backing teachers, tackling the workshy and controlling immigration. At last, we saw pre-emptive strikes on weak Lib-Dem policy commitments – including joining the euro, hurrah!

And our shiny first round debate winner proved to be tetchy and emotional when subjected to a pincer movement on his asylum amnesty. His device of blaming others for point scoring before promptly going on to scoring points himself also began to grate.

Cameron’s biggest challenge was always going to be the need to rebut false claims about Conservative tax and spending plans and the Prime Minister was negative (and clunky) to the bitter end – unbelievably, even in his summing up statement!

Cameron made sure-footed defensive moves and answered the inheritance tax charge well. I believe that viewers would have looked at all three candidates – and decided only one could be prime Minister next week.

Sheila Gunn Sheila Gunn - Political consultant and former press adviser to John Major

Anyone expecting a decisive battle tonight will be disappointed. Let’s face it, who could compete with Mrs Gillian Duffy from Rochdale.  The winner? David Cameron – but by no more than a length.

Nick Clegg came under slightly more pressure than in the previous two debates, and it quickly showed. By the close he was looking distinctly edgy and, to put it politely, a little warm. Gordon Brown quickly tried to put yesterday’s debacle behind him. But he could not resist subjecting viewers to that smile, which the whole world now knows is totally artificial.

On too many issues – the taxes, benefits, immigration, housing or education – all three fought their own corner and had a go at each other. But did it all help sway those swing voters?  Probably not.

Michael Brown 2009 Michael Brown - Independent columnist and Conservative MP between 1979 and 1997

I thought Cameron was solid and pretty good at exposing the weaknesses of the Lib Dem manifesto.His final summary was excellent. Clegg was much more waffly while Brown used any question to hang whatever shopping list of random policies that happened to be in his mind.

The economic section was a great disappointment and all dodged the requests to specify where cuts would be made beyond priority departmental manifesto promises. I don't know who "won" - so much was a repeat of the previous two debates - and I was generally under-whelmed.

If this was Brown's great moment, Cameron has no need to worry. Still a three horse race - not much change in the polls.  

Picture 3 Nick Wood - Managing Director of Media Intelligence Partners and former Press Secretary to William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith

Not a game-changer. Cameron had his best night so far, pushing Clegg hard over his immigration amnesty, and attacking Brown over his jobs tax. Cameron was also strong over welfare reform. Not so much a lurch to the Right as a feint to the Right.

Clegg looked rattled when under sustained attack over his amnesty but still managed to play his rebel leader card. Brown, after his car crash yesterday, showed his granite resilience, swinging his bear-like paws both Left and Right.

As for cutting the deficit, we learned precious new. They are better informed in Greece. The microwave polls ranked it Cameron/Clegg/Brown, which, of course, reflects the wider figures. Cameron did not drop his Ming vase, which counts as a victory in this game.

29 Apr 2010 22:15:05

Post-debate polls give Cameron the victory


29 Apr 2010 19:20:24

Live blog of the final Leaders' Debate

BBCDEBATE graphic Jonathan Isaby, Paul Goodman and Tim Montgomerie will be live blogging the debate from 8.30pm. It is being shown live on BBC 1 at 8.30pm as well as being broadcast on Radio 4.

It is taking place at the University of Birmingham, with David Cameron stage left, Nick Clegg at the centre podium and Gordon Brown stage right - and David Dimbleby chairing the debate.

Tim Montgomerie has already set out three goals for David Cameron tonight.

As you wait for the debate to begin, if you haven't alredy done so, please donate to the campaign of the latest Tory candidate we are helping through out Yellow to Blue fundraising initiative, with the aim of helping to oust sitting Lib Dem MPs.

Picture 4
8.30pm And they're off!

Picture 6 8.32pm David Cameron is first to make the opening statement, summing up the Conservative recipe for the economy. He makes a point of saying never to the euro.

8.33pm Clegg is second to open.

8.34pm Brown is third. He refers to yesterday's incident when he says "I don't get all of it right, but I know ho to run the economy". He expectedly says the Tories risk the recovery.

8.35pm First question: There will be spending cuts - why can't you behonest and tell us?

8.35pm: PG Lobby hacks on Twitter writing that Clegg looked very nervous in opening statement - and was looking down at script.

Continue reading "Live blog of the final Leaders' Debate" »

29 Apr 2010 12:57:50

Cameron's three goals in Birmingham


"The eurozone is starting to look like a giant game of dominos – and unless the rest of the world gets its act together, it too could soon be forced to start playing. This story is highly relevant to Britain: the state is collecting 40 per cent or so of GDP in revenues and spending 52 per cent (on OECD stats) – as anybody who has ever had to run a household, a company or any kind of budget knows, such a large overdraft is unsustainable. Countries aren’t immune to the laws of economics."

- Allister Heath, City AM

This is not a good time to experiment with a hung parliament: Tonight's economy debate takes place against the backdrop of a gathering storm across Europe. Greece is already engulfed. Portugal is teetering. Spain is vulnerable. "The growing crisis," writes Iain Martin, "is at root about large debts and the markets demanding that states start taking serious action." Now is not the time for Britain to undertake a risky experiment in coalition or minority government. Cameron can quote plenty of business leaders and business polls to back his case. The Director-General of the Institute of Directors said yesterday: "The risk is that there will be no agreement on the nature of public spending reductions, and that on this key issue a coalition or minority government will be paralysed." Cameron doesn't need to set out detailed measures but he needs to look the nation in the eye tonight and say that he will take the tough decisions so that Britain can look forward to better times and that he has a growth plan to deliver it. He needs to come out of the debate as the straight-talker. People are ready for some candour.

He has an open goal in front of him on immigration: Mrs Duffy expressed the view of 75% of the British people and she was called a bigot. The Liberal Democrats have unworkable policies on immigration. The Tories have good policies. Cameron needs to set them out clearly and directly.

He needs to paint Nick Clegg as evasive on what he'd do in the event of a hung parliament: This is how I'd do it:

"Let me give you one other guarantee tonight. I will not keep Gordon Brown in power. I do not question Mr Brown’s sincerity but he and the Labour government have done enormous damage to Britain. Every baby born today carries £23,000 of debt because of Labour. Because of Mr Brown’s changes to the regulation of the City, banks were not inspected properly. Most unforgivably, our troops were sent to war without proper equipment. So, let me be clear: I will end the Labour years. I will not keep Mr Brown or any of his colleagues in power under any circumstances. Nick Clegg will not give you that guarantee and because he won’t give you that guarantee you do not know what a Liberal Democrat vote might mean. Your choice is real change with the Conservatives or a risk of more of the same. And that is why I am asking for your vote."

Tim Montgomerie

23 Apr 2010 13:46:40

If I'd been in David Cameron's shoes this is what I would have said at the start/ end of last night's Sky debate...

"If you elect a Conservative government you will get what you vote for.

Action will start from day one. In a hung parliament, action will almost certainly be delayed. There may even have to be another election.

If you elect the Conservatives no more powers will ever be given to Europe without a vote of the whole British people.

We will renew Britain’s nuclear deterrent so we are kept safe in a dangerous world.

We will audit international aid spending so money does not line the pockets of corrupt governments, but only goes to the hungriest people in the world.

At the same time we will put a cap on immigration to relieve pressure on our housing, environment and public services.

Labour’s increase in national insurance will be stopped. Dead.

Council tax will be frozen for at least two years.

The NHS budget and pensioners’ benefits will be protected. In particular people suffering from cancer will get the drugs they need because of our crackdown on waste.

We’ll also implement our emergency growth plan so that we start to bring Britain’s budget deficit under control and create new jobs.

Let me give you one other guarantee tonight.

I will not keep Gordon Brown in power.

I do not question Mr Brown’s sincerity but he and the Labour government have done enormous damage to Britain.

Every baby born today carries £23,000 of debt because of Labour.

Because of Mr Brown’s changes to the regulation of the City, banks were not inspected properly.

Most unforgivably, our troops were sent to war without proper equipment.

So, let me be clear: I will end the Labour years.

I will not keep Mr Brown or any of his colleagues in power under any circumstances.

Nick Clegg will not give you that guarantee and because he won’t give you that guarantee you do not know what a Liberal Democrat vote might mean.

Your choice is real change with the Conservatives or a risk of more of the same.

And that is why I am asking for your vote."

Tim Montgomerie