Conservative Diary

Nick Wood's High Noon

5 May 2010 12:26:12

The measured and choreographed campaigns have left us pretty bereft of drama these past four weeks

Nick Wood square Nick Wood's daily High Noon column

So what have been the highlights of this four-week election campaign? Perhaps I have witnessed too many such contests, but for me the magic moments have been few and far between.

Yes, it has been exciting in the sense that the result remains in doubt until the very end. And, yes, the TV debates have injected a wholly new dimension into the battle for power, producing the only really turbo-charged moment - the Clegg surge that put about 8 points on the Lib Dem poll rating.

Despite Gordon's best efforts, gaffes have been a rarity. Of course, "bigotgate" was a spectacular and one likely to haunt Labour all the way to the ballot box because it amounted to an insult to Brown's core vote.

But Clegg and Cameron have hardly put a foot wrong, moving smoothly from photo-call to speech to interview to photo-call again.

Dramas from elections past - like the way Michael Foot was nearly sacked as Leader half way through the 1983 campaign, like Kinnock and Hattersley endlessly contradicting each other over Labour's tax plans in 1987, like Kinnock"s "take to the hills" defence policy against a potential Soviet invasion, like the tax bombshell, like Maggie Thatcher's "I want the doctor I want, on the day I want" rant in 1987, like John Major unleashing the soap box in 1992, like Neil Hamilton and Martin Bell slugging it out on Knutsford Heath in 1997, like the Prescott punch of 2001 - seem more vivid than the more measured and choreographed procession of 2010.

Perhaps the debates were the problem, compressing the power struggle into three 90-minute made for TV episodes. And even then, no debate attracted more than 10 million viewers, less than a quarter of the electorate.

Potentially big issues, such as curbing the deficit and immigration policy, have failed to dominate the campaign in the way many expected. And although TV dominated through the debates, the big setpiece televised interview with a Brown, Cameron or Clegg became a thing of the past.

Personality mattered more than policy in a way I have not seen before, perhaps understandably with all three parties clustered around the centre ground.

On April 7, the YouGov poll for the Sun gave the Conservatives 37 per cent, Labour 32 per cent, the Lib Dems 19 per cent, and Others 12 per cent. Today the same poll scores it Conservatives 35 (down 2 from a month ago), Labour 30 (down 2), the Lib Dems 24 (up 5) and Others 11 (down 1). So, according to the pollsters, besides a Liberal bubble now apparently subsiding a little, not much has changed in a month despite the armies of spin doctors, policy wonks and image makers deployed on all sides.

It has not been a vintage campaign. But, for Tories at least, it could prove a vintage result.

Nick Wood, Managing Director, Media Intelligence Partners

4 May 2010 12:23:02

Cameron is right to fight on the beaches as imploding Labour plots a pact with the Lib Dems

Nick Wood square Nick Wood's daily High Noon column

Labour's campaign is now in deep trouble. Labour candidates are openly attacking the Prime Minister, Labour ministers are calling on Lib Dems to vote tactically to keep the Tories out, and the press is bursting with speculation about who might replace Gordon Brown when he loses the election.

These are all signs of political meltdown in Labour ranks. Discipline is collapsing and stoking up fear of a Conservative victory is now the only message emanating from the Brown camp.

Labour is reduced to a core vote strategy, desperately trying to turn out its tribal supporters, many of whom are inclined to stay at home after being roundly insulted by their leader with his catastrophic bigot jibe.

Disarray in Labour ranks will put a spring in David Cameron's step as he embarks upon his marathon 36-hour tour of the country in a final bid to drum up support.

Cameron looks sure of picking up a lot of Labour seats. At the start of the campaign he needed probably about 100 gains from Labour and 20 gains from the Lib Dems to get him over the finishing line.

But after the Clegg surge, those potential gains from the Lib Dems look far less likely, meaning that the Conservatives probably need to make 120 gains from Labour and fight the Lib Dems to a draw, thereby still securing enough seats for an overall majority.

Not that Cameron has given up on winning back Liberal seats. Tomorrow, he will be in the West Country, now an even more vital election battleground, seeking to reverse the Clegg advance and pick up precious extra seats.

But it is worth looking more deeply into Labour's machinations. It may have given up on winning the election, but it has not given up on power. All this talk of a "progressive alliance" by Labour ministers such as Peter Hain is not only intended to encourage anti-Tory tactical voting, it is also intended to lay the ground for a post-election Lib-Lab coalition. Labour is gearing up to argue that since it and the Liberals have polled, say, 55 per cent of the vote, the country has voted for a centre-left pact.

All this has the makings of a shabby deal: Brown quits, Labour cobble together an interim new leader and a deal is done with Clegg with a referendum on various forms of proportional representation as the price. Will it fly? Maybe not, but it does represent a serious threat to the country and the Conservative Party.

So David Cameron is right to take the battle into Lib Dem territory tomorrow such as Torbay and Falmouth. He is literally fighting on the beaches.

Nick Wood, Managing Director, Media Intelligence Partners

3 May 2010 12:07:55

Cameron is right to focus on Day One in Downing Street

Nick Wood square Nick Wood's daily High Noon column

Neil Kinnock's hubristic cry of "We're all right!" as he posed as a political rock star before 10,000 swooning supporters at the Sheffield rally has gone down in folklore as the moment Labour lost the 1992 election.

Is David Cameron risking a repeat of that miscalculation with his forecast on the Andrew Marr Show of the steps he would take on his first day in Downing Street after the winning the election?

Early editions of today's Times (later toned down) suggested Cameron faced a "backlash" over his alleged presumptousness. One unnamed Labour aide is quoted as saying he was over-reaching himself in his quest for the crown.

But parallels between Cameron's interview and Kinnock's braggadocio are wide of the mark. Cameron, in far more measured language than the former Labour leader, is rightly trying to focus the electorate's mind on the practical and immediate steps he would take to get the country back on track.

An early casualty of a Cameron premiership would be the long summer holidays enjoyed by MPs - a pledge calculated to tap into the anti-politician mood sweeping the land. But there would also be less symbolic early measures as Prime Minister Cameron rolled up his sleeves and brought forward a Queen's Speech scrapping some of the more intrusive aspects of Labour era, such as ID cards.

And, of course, a new Conservative administration would immediately start to get to grips with controlling runaway public spending.

Cameron was right again to highlight the "muddle and fudge" of a hung Parliament, still the most likely outcome of this three-way fight for power.

The challenge remains over the final few days to bring home to people both the seriousness and urgency of the financial crisis facing the nation and the near impossibility of finding solutions in the fog of a messy electoral draw.

Coupled with that must be the communication of simple, practical reasons for supporting the Conservatives. After a campaign in which the Leaders' Debates have elevated style over substance, clear policy commitments must make a belated comeback.

Nick Wood, Managing Director, Media Intelligence Partners

2 May 2010 12:45:15

David Cameron has the Mo

Nick Wood's High Noon.

David Cameron has got momentum. All the opinion polls today point to a widening of the Conservative lead over the other two parties.

But while Cameron is tantalisingly close to the magic figure of 326 seats, present projections still point to a hung Parliament. Cameron's challenge in the final days of the campaign is to consign this prospect, the dark horse of the election, to the knacker's yard.

One ray of light is that the public is beginning to wake up to the perils of an inconclusive result. According to today's ICM poll for the Sunday Telegraph, 52 per cent of people believe that a hung Parliament would be bad for Britain; only 24 per cent would welcome the result with another 24 per cent undecided.

Given the scale of the problems facing the country, now would be the worst time for government in the UK to be product of a messy compromise between Labour and the Lib Dems or to be the responsibility of a minority

Conservative administration without the numbers to press ahead with its programme of change.

Painful and unpopular decisions to curb the deficit must be taken immediately; Trident renewal must be given the green light to wipe out any doubt about Britain's determination to defend itself; the planned jobs tax must be scrapped now; a cap on immigration is urgently needed; and the schools revolution cannot come too soon.

But all these urgent and necessary measures would be scuppered or diluted if the election ends in a draw.

The Conservatives have to hammer home the message that a hung Parliament equals weak and inadequate government. It will need vigour and energy to get that message across - and a concerted campaign.

Nick Wood of Media Intelligence Partners

29 Apr 2010 11:56:00

"Bigotgate" looks nastier and is far more serious than the Prescott punch

Nick Wood square Nick Wood's daily High Noon column

I was in the Central Office war-room on the night of Wednesday May 16th 2001 when John Prescott landed his infamous punch on the mullet-haired egg-thrower.

The instant media reaction was that the Deputy Prime Minister had just floored Tony Blair's re-election  bid. But in the cold light of the following day, Labour's campaign was still on track. The public judged that Prescott was much provoked and men of a certain disposition rather admired the quality of his left hook.

William Hague responded eventually (CCO had not reacted overnight) with a joke: "It is not my policy to go around hitting the voters".

To update the jibe, it is presumably not David Cameron's policy to go round apologising to voters in person. Brown, on the other hand, need not stop with Gillian Duffy. Most of the rest of us feel he owes us an apology too.

Brown's bigot blunder looks far more serious. It is unjustifiable and unprovoked. Worse, since immigration is a major concern for most people, it brands well over half the country as bigots.

Initial polling, by YouGov for The Sun, had the Tories up 1 and the Lib Dems up 3 with Labour down 2, suggesting a drop in Labour support with core voters (they haven't got anyone else left) switching to Clegg. Nine per cent of people said they were less likely to vote Labour because of Gordon's blunder; 3 per cent (who are they?) were more likely to back Labour.

All this seems to suggest that Labour's support is heading for the mid-20s while the Libs climb into the low 30s. This is good for the Conservatives because a clear lead over Labour, say around 10 points or more will put many previously safe Labour seats at risk.

David Cameron will feel vindicated today in his cautious election strategy. This was always predicated on the belief that Brown would lose the election - partly because of his manifest policy failures but also because of his brittle and unstable character. Now he has cracked under pressure and it may well prove impossible to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Brown has one last chance - the Leaders' Debate tonight. Bizarrely, the man who wrecked the economy touts himself as the only man who can put things right.

But with Greece imploding and the contagion of market fear spreading through southern Europe, Brown's credentials as our economic saviour look shakier still. Dither and delay have exacerbated Greece's horror show. But Brown and Clegg want to put off action to tackle our ghastly deficit until next year.

Cameron has an opening here: to press his case for action this day.

Nick Wood, Managing Director, Media Intelligence Partners

28 Apr 2010 11:51:38

David Cameron must press home that only a Conservative government would deal with the deficit as a matter of urgency - unlike Labour or the Lib Dems

Nick Wood square Nick Wood's daily High Noon column

Just about everyone expected the deficit, the spending cuts and the tax rises needed to get the economy back on track to be the defining feature of this campaign. The great irony is that instead of engaging with the biggest problem facing the country, all three parties have shied away from it.

Now the Institute of Fiscal Studies has brought that omission into sharp relief, calculating the black holes in the parties' spending plans that will have to filled by a combination of tax rises and spending cuts.

It is a fair bet that the independent and authoritative IFS report will play a key role in the leaders' debate on the economy tomorrow night.

How should David Cameron respond? It is far too late for him to produce a shopping list of new tax rises or spending cuts. But he can seek to underline his personal commitment to getting the nation's finances back under control. He needs strong rhetoric to drive home the point that he has the will and the means to stop the UK going the way of Greece.

And, just as "New Politics" Clegg succeeded in lumping together "Old Politics" Brown and Cameron in the first debate, so the Tory leader can distinguish his approach from that of his two rivals.

He needs to drive home the point that only the Conservatives recognise the gravity and urgency of the crisis. Only the Conservatives will make an immediate start on balancing the books, unlike Labour and Lib Dem plans to delay action for another day. They are the mañana parties.

Cameron can couple this attack with a further stark reminder of the dangers of a hung Parliament. A Lib-Lab pact would bring together two parties with conflicting views about how to tackle the deficit but united on one point - a commitment to dithering and delay.

As Churchill would have put it, "they are decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift."

Cameron's other task is to pin the blame for the recession squarely on Brown's slumping shoulders. The last Conservative government left the economy in fine fettle. Brown's Labour government has left it as a basket case.

Nick Wood, Managing Director, Media Intelligence Partners

27 Apr 2010 11:51:00

The Tories' Hung Parliament message will only work if it is endlessly repeated until polling day

Nick Wood's High Noon column.

92080428 Will it work? That question will be uppermost in the minds of CCHQ officials in the wake of yesterday's fierce assault on the perils of a hung Parliament mounted by David Cameron and George Osborne.

As I noted at the weekend, Cameron is now running not against Brown and Clegg but against the cosy idea that Britain would be in better hands if the election ended in a draw and the parties had to work together.

For all kinds of reasons, this is nonsense. But it is a public perception that will be hard to shift. That's why the Tory high command was right to go on the front foot yesterday, changing their PEB to target the Hung Parliament Party.

They will have to go on driving the message home all the way to polling day. No message ever gets across unless it is endlessly repeated. Dave should use the Leaders' Debate on Thursday to step up the attack, leveling with the public and pointing out that the painful decisions necessary to restore the nation's finances to health will not be taken by a weak coalition government.

The media will help. Today's Daily Mail contains an excellent piece on how proportional representation has made the government of Italy a byword for corruption and instability. Do we want that in the UK?

It is a time for hard pounding by the Tory leadership. And it will work.

Nick Wood of Media Intelligence Partners.

26 Apr 2010 12:06:37

Cameron gave a master class in how to run a press conference

Nick Wood's High Noon column.

Not so long ago every day in an election campaign began with a morning press conference hosted by a senior figure - usually the party leader.

Not so today. In fact, by my reckoning, it took until today, 20 days after the election was called, for David Cameron to face the media in time-honoured fashion. Cameron was in London at party HQ. Nick Clegg, meanwhile, was in Edinburgh trying to win support for the Lib Dems north of the border.

Screen shot 2010-04-26 at 12.05.32 The contrast was striking. Cameron gave a master class in message discipline, deftly turning every question back onto his main point, that a vote for Clegg was a vote for five more years of Gordon Brown.

Clegg has an endearing, but ultimately amateurish tendency to answer the question, often at great length. He should watch a recording of Cameron's assured and disciplined performance to get a stronger sense of how to stay on message. Cameron should do more of these conferences. He's good at them and it gives him credibility with the media.

Both men were essentially being asked the same question - what would happen in the event of a hung Parliament? Dave's plan for a greener Britain through the innovation of new parks created by local communities was predictably ignored by the press - as was Clegg's renewed assault on the bankers.

Clegg's readiness to think aloud has already sowed some confusion. Apparently, he won't do a deal with Gordon Brown if Labour come second in seats but third in terms of the popular vote. But is is less clear whether he would do a deal with Labour if Mandelson and Co ditched Brown as leader and installed someone more PR-friendly, such as Alan Johnson.

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25 Apr 2010 12:00:05

A hung parliament is not a nice, fluffy option: it would mean paralysis at best, and chaos at worst

Nick Wood square Nick Wood's daily High Noon column

Judging from this morning's opinion polls, David Cameron is edging ahead in the race for Downing Street. On ICM, he is up 2 points on 35 and 9 points ahead of a sinking Labour Party. On YouGov, he is again up 2 points on 35 and Labour is down 3 on 27.

But Cameron is no longer running against just Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg. The dark horse in this race - and the one Cameron has to beat to get across the finishing line with a clear majority - is a hung Parliament. That is the real threat to a Conservative government as polling day comes closer.

One ray of light buried in the YouGov poll is that support for a hung Parliament is declining. It was at stratospheric levels of above 50 per cent. Now it is down to 37 per cent.

Most of the country have little idea what a hung or (God forbid) balanced Parliament means. It sounds quite nice: politicians of all parties putting aside petty differences to govern in the interests of the nation. All that cheap point-scoring and name-calling would evaporate in the spirit of national reconciliation.

Of course, that is nonsense. A hung Parliament would mean paralysis at best, chaos at worst.

It would ultimately reinforce the anti-politician mood in the land as all three parties, but especially Labour and the Lib Dems, embarked in a prolonged period of power politics in which both policies and personalities were sacrificed for selfish advantage.

Disappointment would abound. Those who voted for Clegg because they want to scrap Trident or because they like his idea of tax cuts for low earners would find their wishes frustrated as they were dashed on the rock of Labour intransigence.

It would be a magnificent irony if Clegg, the matinee idol of the anti-politician party, were to reinforce public contempt for the political process.

Peter Mandelson, determined to emerge from the train wreck of the Labour campaign as a winner, is already manoeuvring to ditch Brown as the price of cobbling together a coalition with the Lib Dems, with jobs for the orange boys thrown in.

Cameron has a clear imperative over the coming week to drive home the point that in a hung Parliament the country is the loser. Vital decisions about tax and spending would be ducked, the markets would dive, and Britain would strike an even more hesitant pose on the world stage.

Voting for Clegg means voting for Labour. Not poor old battered and bewildered Gordon, but Labour nonetheless. A discredited and exhausted Labour desperately trying to cling to power under a Miliband or an Alan Johnson. Cameron is right. Only the Conservatives represent real change.

Nick Wood, Managing Director, Media Intelligence Partners

23 Apr 2010 11:50:17

Time for Dave to get real

Nick Wood's High Noon.

David Cameron should take some comfort from last night's debate. He may not have stalled the Clegg bandwagon, but it is no longer breaking the political speed limit.

Cameron, still more mild-mannered Clark Kent than Superman, slipped into the proverbial phone booth more than once and emerged to give both Clegg and Brown a bloody nose. Clegg was effectively slapped down over his pose as Westminster's Mr Clean and Brown was forced to backtrack over his scurrilous, scaremongering leaflets, which in time-honoured Labour fashion seek to terrify the nation's grannies into sticking with the man who wrecked everyone's old age.

Equally encouraging, the press are still gunning for the Lib Dems. Today's papers declared Cameron the winner and we can confidently expect more media scrutiny of Clegg and his party over the coming days.

Newspapers may not have the influence of the 80s and 90s. But it is hard to imagine that a sustained barrage of bad headlines will fail to pull the Lib Dem's poll rating back towards the mid-20s.

Certainly, that is what Cameron needs: Labour and the Lib Dems slugging it out around the mid 20s and the Conservatives north of 35 per cent.

Easy to say. Harder to achieve. What is the best message for the Tories over the next week or so?

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