Conservative Diary

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Vote Clegg, get Brown - and the Small Economy

I wrote yesterday that the first election debate may have been a breakthrough gig for Clegg.  It's still too early to know - but certainly looks that way this morning.  The Liberals may not be capable of sustaining a 30 per cent rating or more.  Other polls may turn out not to square with Yougov.  However, there are still a couple of Leaders' debates to go - giving Clegg two more bites at the cherry.  And last night's YouGov poll will stir further media frenzy, propelling his party's bandwagon, shock-started by the first debate, into the Sunday papers and beyond.  The odds are that the Liberal ratings will subside substantially.  But it's hard to see their vote falling below the 23 per cent they gained in 2005, and easy to imagine them gaining well above that number.  To date, this election has been asleep.  At long last, it is stirring.

The media will turn some fire on Brown. This is the first time that a governing party has been third in a poll during an election campaign. But we will be pounded ferociously hard during the next few days.  After all, we've been knocking about in the polls at between roughly 35 and 40 per cent - enough not to guarantee a Conservative majority, but certainly to suggest a Cameron premiership.  This morning, that prospect looks more distant, and in our hysterical media culture today's perspective is all that matters all too often.  By its own admission - see this morning's papers - the leadership underestimated Clegg, prepared no debate strategy to deal with him, and have been caught napping. Many of my fellow hacks will be sniffing around this weekend for stories about Tory splits, disloyalty, and panic.  The Guardian/BBC/media left axis has an axe to grind, and a few Conservative commentators have scores to settle.  Not for the first time, the leadership may pay a price for having fewer firm media friends than it might.

David Cameron's aim couldn't be more straightforward - to get back up to 40 per cent of the vote or more.  After all, he'll become Prime Minister if this happens (providing no other single party nears this total).  In a certain sense, everything else is secondary: as long as we stay north of 40 per cent, it won't matter to the party leadership - in the short-term, anyway - if the Liberals end up with 30 and Labour with 20, or vice-versa (though it will matter a great deal to individual candidates). A surging LibDem/SDP vote in 1983  turned out to be perfectly compatible with a Conservative landslide.  But it's important to note that such a happy outcome is precisely what last night's poll did not suggest.  In the immediate aftermath of Thursday's debate, Clegg's party is drawing more or less equally from its two bigger rivals.  And our five point lead over Labour is no consolation.  If realised on election day, the YouGov totals would leave Brown with 30 more seats than us in the Commons - 275 to 245, with the Liberals on 99: grisly evidence of the unfairness of the electoral system that we're pledged to correct.

There are three main strategic options for getting back up to 40 per cent, or more:

  • The first is to ignore Clegg completely and carry on both advancing our case and attacking Brown.  Obviously, it's vital to promote our philosophy and policies.  And scarcely less important to remember that Clegg isn't going to become Prime Minister, that Brown might, and that Labour remains our main electoral enemy.  But to pretend that Clegg isn't there - if the polls confirm next week that he is - would be like a man claiming the radio isn't on just because he's clamped his hands over his ears.
  • The second is to do what David Cameron didn't do to Clegg during Thursday's debate - assail him, assault him, head-lock him, knee him in the groin, give him a Glasgow kiss. In other words, go for Liberals' policy ragbag - the amnesty for illegal immigrants, the Euro-mania, the wonky sums (how can Clegg claim to know that treating mental health patients better will save exactly £450 million?), the Cable U-turns, the noxious and vicious campaigning.  This is exactly what the Sun, Mail, Telegraph and blogosphere will do, given a bit of judicious encouragement.  Whether the Conservative Party should follow suit is more doubtful.  Whenever David Cameron's got up to 40 per cent, he's done so by attracting liberal-leaning, middle ground voters.  Knocking ten bells out of that nice Mr Clegg is as likely to turn them off as it is to turn some of our activists on.
  • The third is to take voters back to the main choice.  Do they really want Gordon Brown returned to Downing Street?  If they don't, voting for Clegg will put Brown back in, not keep him out.  The YouGov poll is grimly convincing on the point.  It shows how Labour could end up with the largest number of MPs  - even if they come third.  No wonder sterling fell on the markets yesterday - a presentiment of the sliding currency, soaring mortgage rates, rising taxes, higher prices and threat to our credit ratings that would follow a Labour Government, a hung Parliament or a Lab/Lib deal.

I wrote earlier that this election is stirring at last.  But it's doing so in the sense that a sleeping man might shift in this sleep as he moves from one dream to another: after all, toying with voting for Clegg's party is the ultimate dreamland option.  To David Cameron falls the task of gently but firmly waking the voters up, steering them to the window, and showing them the landscape outside.  He dreams of a Big Society.  It's a compelling vision.  But it's also time for him to keep repeating that unless the deficit is tackled, Britain will be left with a Very Small Economy.  And to be backed up by the very big Ken Clarke.

Obviously, one message isn't a campaign.  We need to ensure that the media's briefed on who the Liberals are and what they want; to project the candidates and councillors who've left the Liberals to join us; to make the most of our liberal-friendly stance on civil liberties (with a role for David Davis); to have a strategy for dealing with Clegg in the remaining debates - casting him as the man who'll let Brown back into Downing Street - and for winning the spin war we lost on Thursday.  But the best means of dealing with the Liberals is also the most simple, clear and true - cooly and calmly reminding the voters: vote Clegg, get Brown - and the Small Economy.

Paul Goodman

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