By Harry Phibbs
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There is an odd mood of defeatism in both the main political parties about their propsects at the next General Election. They can't both be right. Somebody has to win.
Here are ten factors which suggest a Conservative victory is the most likely outcome.
1. The issues.
Public opinion is going in the opposite direction to the Labour Party. The recent Joseph Rowntree study on attitudes to welfare is very much in line with other evidence.
I am told that a focus group "mood board", undertaken at the last election, asked what the Labour Party stood for. The group produced an image of a fat, lazy welfare recipient in a vest lounging on a sofa. If anything that perception of the Party will have deepened.
On other issues Conservatives are closer to the public than Labour. At the next election the Conservatives will be able to offer their own manifesto with tough popular policies - getting rid of the Human Rights Act for example - rather than being constrained by the coalition government. However there will also be plenty of achievements to point to.
It's a little early to say that the Tories are completely back on track but it's been a very good week for the Conservatives.
Headlining this morning's Today programme is the news that 23 very senior businessleaders have backed the Conservatives' policy on National Insurance Contributions. The letter, signed by the chiefs of M&S, JCB and Sainsbury's, appears in this morning's Telegraph;
"The Government’s proposal to increase national insurance, placing an additional tax on jobs, comes at exactly the wrong time in the economic cycle. In a personal capacity, we welcome George Osborne’s plan to stop the proposed increase in national insurance by cutting Government waste. In the last two years, businesses across the country have cut their costs without undermining the service they provide to their customers. It is time for the Government to do the same."
George Osborne has showed he has better judgment than Darling or Cable. Labour and the Liberal Democrats were determined to damage the Shadow Chancellor in Monday night's debate. They failed. It was a pretty forgettable affair - except for Darling's gaffe on the death tax and Vince Cable's playing to the gallery. Cable's left-wing populism served him well on the night but will hurt his long-term reputation. George Osborne came over as competent and measured.
A confident interview for the FT will further help Tory standing on the economy. It's here.
The feisty, direct nature of the Tory poster attacks on Brown. They were neither flashy nor clever but the new Saatchi ads told the truth about Brown's record. Can a man who has doubled the national debt, overseen the early release of convicted criminals and raided our pensions really deserve re-election?
Cameron's warning to Obama that the UK won't be his poodle. Mr Cameron told The Economist that he was "disappointed" with the Obama administration's unwillingness to back Britain over the future of the Falklands.
Brown's own goal on immigration. The Labour leader was rebuked yesterday by the Statistics Chief for misleading use of migration stats. Chris Grayling detects a pattern:
“Gordon Brown is turning into a serial offender in misleading the British people in the run-up to the election. He gave false information to the Chilcot enquiry, his advertising campaign about policing was banned, and now he has given an inaccurate picture of his record on immigration. Britain should expect better from its Prime Minister. No wonder we need change.”
Labour has fallen below 30% in ConservativeHome's Poll of Polls. Details here.
FOUR ACTION POINTS FOR THE COMING WEEKS
Although January was jittery the Tories should remain relatively hopeful about their prospects, if never complacent. Despite a few Tory wobbles the party remains at about 40% in all polls and Labour can't get above 30%. Labour hasn't actually been able to get above 30% since the end of 2007. The public appears to have made its mind up about Labour. Even a lead of 5%/6% may actually produce a Tory majority because voter projection models don't account for the factors I listed here.
We've now got solidity on Tory economic policy after some recalibration. Sunday's letter from twenty top economists backing early and decisive action on the budget deficit - and largely using spending cuts rather than tax rises - was a big boost for George Osborne.
The Left appear to be incapable of producing any new ideas. Unless, of course, you count Brown's attempt to fix the electoral system and Labour activists' endless (and, I admit, very funny) spoofing of Tory posters. The Tories remain creative where it matters. Stephan Shakespeare explained the biggest of ideas yesterday; Transparency. It has the potential to save tens of billions of pounds in the years ahead. The Sun and Guardian appear genuinely excited this morning about the Tory idea for co-ops. Credit must go to Jesse Norman for first doing the work on this.
Too many core Tories continue to misunderstand the Cameron project. It's quite simple. The party hasn't changed radically but it has broadened. We are still the party of Euroscepticism (never to the Euro), a tough approach to crime (elected police chiefs will be a major reform), low taxation (see pledges on council tax, corporation tax, taxation of married couples and inheritance tax) and controlled immigration (Cameron has promised to return immigration to the levels of the mid-1990s). But today we are also the party of social justice (and IDS' interpretation of this is very conservative), the environment (where I have faith in Greg Clark's pragmatism) and civil liberties (thanks to David Davis). It's true that it's not perfect but this election isn't a choice between a perfect Conservative Party and an imperfect Conservative Party but between a strong government led by David Cameron and the chaos of a hung parliament.
We have to win over new voters. That's what yesterday's good Tory posters were about. They reinforce the idea that today's Conservative Party is different. And it is.
What is The Daily Mail playing at? The Mail continues to give Labour too much space and the Tories too much agro. Stephen Glover recently wrote a ridiculous article, suggesting that the Conservatives didn't have any policies. Does Paul Dacre really want another five years of a Labour Government and all it means for the tax burden, the family and immigration? He sometimes gives the impression that he does. A time for choosing is coming, Mr Dacre, and we could do with the help of your important newspaper now.
The BBC, Sky and Guardian continue to act together in their anti-Ashcroft agenda. Where is the questioning of Labour politicians about the business affairs of the big Labour donors? George Osborne has begun to fight back and Guido Fawkes has turned his attention to Lord Paul. I wonder if a Tory MP had accused Labour of being scum-sucking pigs he would have had quite so little press attention as Labour's whip, David Wright. Well done to Jonathan Sheppard of ToryRadio for instigating that story.
Tories continue to underplay immigration. As the second most important issue for voters I think it has the potential to move us from one nil up to two nil. Timing is important (it has to be done from a position of opinion poll strength) but we should define the immigration cap soon. Cameron has the moral authority that Michael Howard was perceived to lack to talk about immigration without frightening moderates.
The debates loom. I remain worried about the election debates and the opportunity they give to Nick Clegg. Not because I don't have faith in David Cameron but occasionally even Manchester United loses a game to the likes of Leeds. The debates remain, for me, the last big hurdle that the Conservative campaign must navigate.
I hope some lessons are being learnt behind-the-scenes. At times (most of the time) the CCHQ machine is good. Look at the rapid production of last week's Death Tax Poster. At other times it embarasses as with yesterday's stats blunder. I hope Team Cameron are noting the weaknesses in the machine and have a plan to put them right if they enter government.
Today's General Election Brief.
Hoon's evidence to Iraq inquiry dominates the day's political news. How much - if at all - is the Iraq Inquiry hurting Labour? There's no big revelation from today's questioning of Geoff Hoon although Liam Fox has said that it confirms that Brown handicapped Britain's troops with insufficient financial support. Equally, not much came from Alastair's Campbell day in front of the cameras last week. But the drip, drip, drip of constant coverage (with journalists like Glen Oglaza tweeting frenetically all day) can't be good for Labour. It's a reminder of one of the Government's most unhappy periods. And this is all a warm up to the Inquiry's big moment when Tony Blair takes the hot seat.
Action on binge drinking was the political theme of the day. Both parties put own statements including this from Chris Grayling.
Inflation is back and it'll make budget control a lot harder. Iain Martin worries that this is going to make public sector pay control a lot trickier: "Imagine you are the head of a team of trade union negotiators anywhere in Britain right now. You will just have clocked that inflation is 2.9% and rounded it up mentally to 3%... Millions of workers who accepted pay freezes or small raises last year will be less minded to agree to a repeat than they would be if inflation was stuck at, say, 1%. So, sentiment shifts, people start to grumble and unions put in claims of 4% in the hope they can then settle at or above the 3% “going-rate.”"
Osborne and Johnson issue joint attack on bank bonus culture. At a lunch for London and European heads of the global banking sector the Mayor of London said that he was "shocked and baffled by the persistence of this excessive bonus culture at a time when millions of Londoners and thousands of businesses are struggling." The Shadow Chancellor added: "Boris and I also present a united front when we say: large cash bonuses are unacceptable at this difficult time. Bankers need to show they understand that we are all in this together."
Today's General Election Brief.
We are moving towards clarity on the married tax allowance. Despite what my good friend Iain Martin blogs, the Tory policy on marriage is becoming clear. As a first instalment or downpayment on David Cameron's marriage policy we are likely to get a £600m Transferable Tax Allowance within the early years of a Conservative government for all children under the age of three with married parents. In a family green paper the Centre for Social Justice sets out the reasons why the two parent family is such a force for social well-being. The Daily Mail continues to blast Labour for neglecting marriage, as in an editorial today. It accuses Labour of being "deluded" and "opportunist". The Conservative policy is praised as "creditworthy". The family is one of the top concerns of the paper's Editor, Paul Dacre. Brown is undermining the last hope he had with Dacre by allowing Ed Balls to trash the Tory plan to save the two parent family.
The Tories promise to make teaching a noble profession. Jonathan blogged on the Tories' education manifesto earlier. Central to today's launch was the idea of recruiting the very best graduates for the classroom. The media have had fun with the fact that Tory maths adviser Carol Vorderman got a 'Douglas Hurd' (Cockney rhyming slang) at university but education is the Tories' biggest idea and you can't have good schools without good teachers. Recruiting the best and sacking the worst will be an affront to the unions and may require larger class sizes but my guess is that most parents will strongly approve.
Reducing Britain's carbon footprint is lowest priority of Conservative MPs. This website released the results of a survey of 141 candidates in our most winnable seats that showed broad support for Cameron's emphasis on the NHS, poverty-fighting and civil liberties. Only 8 of the 141 regarded climate change as their top priority, however. Read the results here.
Fifty candidates gathered to have their photographs taken with Cameron today. The FT has the story. I bet Brown won't be featuring on much Labour literature.
The weekend's General Election Brief.
The Conservatives remain solidly ahead. Two polls over the weekend suggested the Tories remain on course for victory. YouGov had the Tories 9% in front of Labour and ComRes had the Tories 13% ahead. The lead is much bigger among men. We're 20% up among men but just 6% ahead among women.
A little more volume on immigration could seal the deal for the Conservatives. So suggests a YouGov poll for MigrationWatch UK.
Nine times as many voters in marginal seats are likely to vote for
David Cameron as vote against him if he emphasises his promise to cap
immigration to about 50,000pa.
Nick Clegg struggles with non-policy questions. The Liberal Democrat leader did well enough on Marr this morning, adding to my concern that he'll be far from a pushover in the election debates. But he slipped up when The Mirror's Kevin Maguire asked if he'd donated to Haiti. Not yet, he flustered. He famously also slipped up when asked about the value of the basic state pension (he said it was just £30!) and when asked about the number of his lovers(he answered the question).
UKIP took a swing to the intolerant Right with a pledge to ban the burkha. The move designed to stop leakage of UKIP votes to the BNP provoked strong criticism from both The Times and Tory MEPs. They called UKIP "un-British".
Fraser Nelson highlights the scale of likely Tory defence cuts. In his News of the World column the Editor of The Spectator warns
that Cameron's "staggering" and "puzzling" pledges on NHS and
international aid will mean 20% defence cuts if they are not reversed.
Ridley Grove blames Liam Fox for not winning a better deal for the armed forces.
Ed Balls attacks David Cameron's marriage policy. Ed
Balls has temporarily lost out to Peter Mandelson in the internal
Labour debate as to whether Brown should emphasise a class-based appeal
to core Labour voters or a Blairite appeal to aspiration. With Harriet Harman, however, he continues to bash the Tories for wanting to recognise marriage in the tax system. Philip Hammond hit back for the Tories, noting that Labour's Britain was almost unique in not recognising marriage.
Tomorrow David Cameron and Michael Gove launch the families and education chapter of the Conservative draft manifesto.
There'll be full coverage on ConHome but the Conservative leader gave a
taste of his 'we'll-help-families-who-do-the-right-thing' message in
this morning's Mail on Sunday.
[With apologies that this is the first General Election Brief since Monday. The Brief was a casualty of a jam-packed few days.]
More progress for Welsh Tories. A YouGov poll last night for ITV Wales had the Tories on 32% and Labour on 35%. That would mean nine more Tory MPs from Wales if translated into a uniform swing on election day. UK Polling Report has more.
Labour plan five new pledges for the General Election campaign. Brown is drafting five reasons to vote Labour and five reasons to reject the Conservatives. Conservatives don't necessarily need a pledge card but we need to sharpen our doorstep message a little.
Cut, cut, cut, cut. Overnight, there were newspaper stories of immediate cuts from the Conservatives, cuts in the arts budget, cuts in the aid budget, cuts in middle class welfare, cuts in defence. [See today's ConHome front page]. But The Economist still wasn't satisfied: "The squeezes [George Osborne] identified amounted to £7 billion ($11.4 billion) a year. In 2009-10 the deficit is £178 billion."
Cameron underperforming at PMQs. The Evening Standard doesn't think Cameron has really won a PMQs for two or three months. I can't disagree but I don't think it really matters. He normally provides enough of a strong soundbite for the news bulletins but it's not helping rock bottom morale in the parliamentary party.
Does Grant Shapps run on Duracell? His hit rate in the media is extraordinary. He had a big splash in yesterday's Sun (and other newspapers) which showed that government spending on propaganda advertising was soaring in this election run-up. Labour ministers, said Mr Shapps, "should not be raiding the taxpayers' pockets to try to keep their own seats."
Nasty Nick. The Liberal Democrat leader told Attitude, a gay lifestyle magazine, that David Cameron was "someone who is “very difficult to trust” on the issue of gay rights". I wonder if he'll play as dirty in the debates?
Watching the media, watching us. One of the most important roles that the blogosphere can play in the election campaign is to keep an eye out for media bias. I knocked The Telegraph yesterday evening for a story that The Mirror would have been proud of (in fact, it was written by an ex-Mirror journalist now working for the Barclay Bros). Iain Dale has a bigger target today. He's got the BBC's One Show in his cross-hairs for an appalling piece of anti-Tory bias last night.
Hat tip to the Left for the mydavidcameron thing. Naughty, but funny, it's got coverage everywhere - online and in print. My favourite is below:
A good day for the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg's decision to junk some of his party's favourite policies given the changed economic circumstances will have struck most voters as reasonable. Rather than specific policies, reasonableness and a moderation of tone is the LibDems' biggest advantage. Clegg will have reinforced that advantage today.
Frank Field offered some support for the Conservatives today. He turned up to David Cameron's Demos speech at the Conservatives' invitation. Report on speech here. FF is too much of a Labour man to ever defect to the Tories but he should definitely be invited to play a role in any Conservative government. He could take a job on welfare, the teaching of British history, democratic reform but I'd give him a job related to immigration.
David Cameron gave an excellent performance on Five Live this afternoon. Cross-examined by Richard Bacon and callers for an hour he came across as measured, warm and consistent. We should not underestimate the vote winner that Cameron is going to be for the Conservatives once the election campaign is up and running properly and voters are focused on a choice between him becoming PM and Brown staying at Number Ten.
CCHQ needs to reassure grassroots Conservatives on the shortlisting process for John Maples and other 2010 retirees. ConHome readers reacted furiously to John Maples' decision to stand down now and so disenfranchise his local party members in their selection of his successor. Maples has flicked the bird at party members once too often. He should not have any role in drawing up the shortlists of three for his seat and the other 11th hour seats needing a candidate. CCHQ doesn't need a row with local parties so close to an election.
Tories are 16% ahead in a new poll tonight. Read more about the Angus Reid survey at PoliticalBetting.com.
It has been done carefully but the Tories are talking about immigration again. The volume is a fraction of that which immigration received under Michael Howard but there is definitely more attitude from the Tories on the topic. Yesterday we had Chris Grayling's announcement of a battery of measures that would deal with the weakest link in the current immigration system; the student visa system. Today David Cameron told Andrew Marr that he wanted to cut immigration to "tens of thousands". In the graph below from Fraser Nelson we can see the significance of that pledge if it was honoured:
The Tories have announced three other policies in recent days that should encourage the Tory base. On Friday there was the pledge to give headteachers more powers to sack failing teachers. Overnight there was the well-received commitment to provide scholarships to the children of servicemen killed in action. This morning Cameron announced measures to help small businesses.
The events in Northern Ireland may be good for the Tories if the General Election is close. The troubles of Peter Robinson and the Democratic Unionist Party could benefit the Northern Ireland alliance of the UUP and Conservatives. I wrote about this earlier. Ten seats is the upper limit of possibilities but five or six seats is now very possible (potentially giving Cameron more MPs in NI than in Scotland).
Another bad weekend for "Shambles" Brown. Congratulations to Iain Dale for publishing Peter Watt's insidery account of the "shambles" of Brown's Downing Street operation and of the aborted £1.5 million plan for a honeymoon election in 2007. Watch the Sky News report.
Alistair Darling spoke the truth about public spending. David Cameron told Andrew Marr that the Chancellor's interview for the Saturday Times was an important moment and it was. Darling warned that "The next spending review will be the toughest we have had for 20 years." He told the truth and the fact that he said it shows he's no longer under Brown's thumb.
No big movement in the polls following the SnowStorm plot. It's only one poll but ICM's survey for The Sunday Telegraph suggested the Tory lead is stable at about 10%. The ICM numbers are unusually almost identical to the ConHome Poll of Polls; 40/30/17.4.
The big freeze squeezes out election stories. Not much to brief about today. None of the parties launched big new initiatives, wisely deciding that any election initiatives would be buried in a snowdrift of weather stories.
David Miliband was almost as much a loser from the snowstorm plot as Brown. Andrew Grice notes that the Foreign Secretary has sat on the fence during all three botched coup attempts against Brown... "and fallen off". David Miliband's hesitation, yesterday, will have appealed to neither the loyalists nor the insurrectionists. As Bagehot put it: "He ended up looking both tame and disloyal at the same time." Miliband was, not of course, the only Cabinet minister to give a grudging endorsement of Brown. Iain Martin speculated that Darling even asked Brown to consider quitting. Andrew Neil concludes that the legacy of the SnowStorm plot will be the "half-hearted" support that the PM enjoys from his Cabinet. Every Political Editor knows at least one Cabinet minister who is briefing against the PM.
Janet Daley warms to a more human Cameron. ConservativeHome summaries the Tory leader's Today programme interview here. Janet Daley (who has become increasingly positive about Mr Cameron in recent months) enjoyed his willingness to apologise for his marriage policy gaffe. She thinks he is coming out of his PR man years and becoming himself: "Admitting that he had simply screwed up earlier in the week with his unintentionally ambiguous wording on the marriage question, he sounded as engagingly frank as he generally does in private conversation."
Who is out to get Steve Hilton? There have been a stream of anti-Hilton stories in recent days (another one tonight) and I fear they are coming from within the Conservative machine. Steve isn't perfect (who is?) but he has been vital in broadening the Conservative Party's appeal. I've defended him before against unfair critics and hope that his attacker will start spending more time attacking the real enemy.
The first defaced Tory poster. Hat tip to Virtual Economics: