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Prof Tim Bale: Rachel Sylvester is wrong about Cameron's strategy in opposition and the reasons why he failed to win an outright victory in 2010

Picture 3 Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Sussex University and is the author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, an updated version of which was recently published in paperback.

Normally I'm more than happy to sneak a peek over the paywall to read Rachel Sylvester, but today I think she's got it wrong.

In her Times (£) column she suggests that the 'red-top grit' that Andy Coulson put into the 'red-Tory oyster...also muddied the water.  By persuading the Conservative leader to focus more on crime, immigration and Europe, Mr Coulson undermined the careful rebranding operation on which Mr Cameron had embarked. He kept traditionalists on side with ideas such as 'prison ships', he wooed the tabloids with policies on knife crime but he also frightened off swing voters - who are the key to electoral success - by playing the old Tory tunes.'

Leaving aside the idea that Philip Blond's ideas achieved quite as much traction with the Tory leadership as some seem to think, Ms Sylvester's take on things misreads both Cameron's strategy in opposition and the reasons why he was unable to win an outright victory in 2010.

When Andy Coulson was brought in to run the Conservative media operation in 2007, Cameron looked like he was in deep trouble.  Brown was bouncing and the Tories had been hit by 'grammarsgate', by an excruciatingly embarrassing by-election defeat, and by widespread criticism of Cameron's decision to fly off to Rwanda instead of staying in his flood-hit constituency.  As a result, there was a serious possibility that Labour might call - and win - a snap election. 

Cameron responded by using a number of high-profile violent crimes to talk tougher than he had done in his so-called 'hug-a-hoodie' phase about law and order.  He also entered the immigration debate for practically the first time, empathising with those who felt the public services their families relied on were coming under strain as a result of the numbers arriving in the country.  George Osborne responded by distancing the leadership from what he called 'uber-modernising' and by his Conference promise to cut inheritance tax.

Labour may have reacted - with crushing predictability - by accusing the Tories of 'lurching to the right', but the accusation for the most part fell on deaf ears, both when it came to the voters and to the media.  In part that was because the story soon became Brown's failure to call an election and a chapter of accidents that befell his government just afterwards.  But it was also because Cameron was able to talk about such issues in a tone that set him apart from his more populist predecessors and because, after spending eighteen months talking about other things, he had indeed gained 'permission to be heard' by voters previously wary of voting for what many of them had come to think of as 'the nasty party'. 

Just as importantly, having intervened on such issues, and having done enough to scare Brown off an early election, Cameron returned to matters - most obviously health, education and welfare - that featured heavily in his earlier effort to 'decontaminate' the Tory brand.  That's not to say he forgot about some of the 'old Tory tunes'.  But Cameron's modus operandi from then on was to calibrate between them and topics which emphasised the Conservatives had changed and was back in the centre-ground.

Andy Coulson's role was crucial in the sense of sharpening and sharpening the message, yes.  But it was his political masters who decided (almost certainly correctly given the emergency they were facing) to bring forward a 'rebalancing' of the Conservative offer that they had always intended to make at some point.

Cameron's intention - encapsulated (though not necessarily driven) by ConHome's  'and theory' - was to go to the country in 2010 having his cake and eating it too.  The Tories would offer people moderate, centrist policies on the economy and public services and a more right-wing, but not 'swivel-eyed', pitch on crime, immigration and Europe.  In other words, they would win the election by positioning themselves where the bulk of the electorate were - the biggest lesson Cameron et al. learned from New Labour.

What went wrong was the economy, stupid.  With global meltdown came a huge deficit - and a gamble on the part of the Conservative leadership that voters would respond positively to the need for austerity in order to tackle it.  The gamble didn't pay off, not simply because voters weren't as keen as had been hoped, but because talk of cuts fatally contradicted all the repositioning the party had done on the economy and public services.  It was this - and not promises to crack down on knife-crime (I don't remember much, if anything, about prison ships) and immigration and repatriate the odd policy from Brussels - that put off 'swing voters' in sufficient numbers to deny Cameron the keys to Number Ten without first doing a deal with Clegg and co.

Coulson's departure is a shame but it's dwarfed by the biggest strategic issue facing the government and the Conservative Party.  Coulson can be replaced - although not necessarily easily.  But what is really going to be difficult is persuading a country that's not right-wing on the economy and public services but is right-wing on crime, immigration and (to some extent) Europe to re-elect you when the policies you're pursuing suggest that you see things completely the other way around.


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