Conservative Diary

Nick Wood's High Noon

22 Apr 2010 12:49:31

Labour is now in the greatest peril as Gordon Brown appears to have become the "Great Ignored"

Nick Wood square Nick Wood's daily High Noon column

Nick Clegg is the volcanic eruption of this campaign, but he is not the full story. To borrow a line from John Prescott, the tectonic plates of our political landscape are shifting fast and tonight, with the second of the Leaders' Debates, further tremors seem inevitable.

Media coverage of the campaign has so far focused on two players - Clegg and Cameron. Clegg's star rose dramatically a week ago and now, inevitably, he is experiencing the full force of scrutiny by Fleet Street's finest.

Six of today's front-pages lead on anti-Clegg stories, ranging from The Sun, which is thoroughly enjoying itself, to the Financial Times.

No one has landed a knockout blow yet - though the Telegraph story about curious funding arrangements raises as many questions as answers. Clegg promises full disclosure "in a few days". Perhaps he wants to wait until May 7. The press will not be prepared to wait more than a few hours.

But it is Labour that is in the greatest peril. The pollsters are routinely consigning the governing party to third place and a rating in the mid to high 20s. And the Labour campaign has apparently ground to a halt.

David Cameron began by talking about the "Great Ignored". Right now the "Great Ignored" looks like Gordon Brown, woundingly likened to King Lear by Steve Richards in the Independent today.

This is Lear's most famous line, but it could have come from the mouth of the Prime Minister as he contemplates his ever dwindling authority.

"I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall -- I will do such things --
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth!"

Labour cannot afford to drop any further behind the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. While Cleggmania may ensure that the Tory-Liberal fight ends in a draw with neither party making inroads against the other, Labour is
teetering on the precipice.

If it loses any more support and drops below 25%, it will find that in previously safe seats the Lib Dem surge will allow Tory candidates to come through the middle and grab unlikely victories.

Cameron's twin goals tonight are to halt the Lib Dem bandwagon and ensure that Labour continues down its path towards oblivion.

He will need to be sharper, crisper, more assertive and more memorable than last week. He will be on the back foot over Iraq and under some pressure over Afghanistan. There he needs to acknowledge genuine differences of opinion over the two wars while sticking to his guns. Taking out Saddam Hussein was right then and is right now. Ditto the Taliban. What he must not do is try to split the difference.

But Europe and Trident offer an opportunity for Cameron to show he has a clear and compelling vision of Britain's unique role in the uncertain world of the 21st Century.

Clegg appears to be ready to let Iran have nuclear weapons but not Britain. Even worse, he subscribes to a mushy internationalism in which the summit of his ambition is for the land of Nelson and Churchill to become a bigger Belgium.

As for Gordon, his threats look increasingly empty.

Nick Wood, Managing Director, Media Intelligence Partners

21 Apr 2010 13:00:14

Cameron needs the Lab/Lib vote to split 50/50 and to come through the middle

Nick Wood's High Noon column.

Crack teams of halo removal operatives are now being scrambled from the murkier quarters of what was once Fleet Street in a last ditch bid to halt the Lib Dem bandwagon.

Today, The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and, of course, ConservativeHome with its attack vid, all waded into St Nick over his expenses claims, his past work as a lobbyist and his leaked leader's debate crib sheet.

His expenses (£83,824 over four years including thousands on mortgage interest and bijou touches such as £160 a month for a gardener to prune his plum trees and a new wall for the rose garden) were first raised at a press conference by that curmudgeonly old warhouse Andrew Neil.

They produced a novel response from Clegg, who were insisted they were acceptable since his "modest" semi in Sheffield belonged not to him but the people and any profit on it would be returned to the taxpayer. Presumably Clegg Towers will opened to a grateful nation and will come complete with a blue plaque, uniformed attendants, and audio guides. By then, according to this fantasy, St Nick will be returfing the Downing Street lawns. (The rose garden already has a wall).

The press are unlikely to stop with expenses claims. After his boast that he has slept with 'no more than 30' women, no doubt the News of the World and the Mail on Sunday, among others, are conducting further inquiries. How many of them are still voting Lib Dem?

Continue reading "Cameron needs the Lab/Lib vote to split 50/50 and to come through the middle" »

20 Apr 2010 12:28:39

St Nick's halo has to go

Nick Wood's High Noon column.

"It feels like 1906 - the Liberals ahead in the polls and not a plane in the sky."

In the CCHQ bunker, Tory campaign chiefs can be forgiven some black humour as they grapple with Nick Clegg's runaway bandwagon.

In 1906 the Liberals scored a landslide victory - the last time they won outright in a British general election.

But the boys and girls in the Tory bunker should switch their sights to May 1940. Again there are plenty of parallels. Small boats are heading for France and the natives are proving uncooperative. One poll has suggested Clegg is even more popular than Churchill.

But surely not for much longer. With the campaign seemingly turning on the outcome of three televised Leaders' Debates, Cameron and his aides should be focused on ensuring that Thursday's encounter on Sky marks at least the beginning of a Tory revival.

Incidentally, Sky is making the debate widely available and it is expected to be screened live on BBC News Channel and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Cameron will be channeling nearly all his energies on eclipsing Clegg in the next debate.

First and foremost, he has to puncture Clegg's claim to be the "anti-politician" politician. Either directly - or better through his lieutenants and the press - he has to scotch the Lib Dem's preposterous suggestion that he and his party were in some way untainted by the expenses scandal. Andrew Neil began that work earlier today.

At present, the general election resembles some gigantic by-election with Clegg leader of the "protest party", fanning the crazy notion that the public can take its revenge on the fiddling class at Westminster by voting for Mr Clean. So the Conservatives have to ram home the message that no one - certainly not the Lib Dems - emerges from the moats and duck houses affair with honour.

If they don't, Gordon Brown, the man whose fiddling was of a different order as he trashed the country's finances, will be the ultimate beneficiary of the protest vote.

Of course, the Tories also have to take apart the Lib Dem ragbag of policies. But their main task over the next few days, culminating in the second debate is to knock that halo off Mr Clegg's head.

19 Apr 2010 11:54:33

Nick Wood's High Noon: Tory high command must find a way of demonstrating that Nick Clegg's claims to represent a new kind of politics are spurious

Nick Wood square Nick Wood's daily High Noon column

"It was The Sun wot won it," was the iconic headline after the 1992 election - the last time Britain found itself in an election campaign as hazy as the cloud of volcanic ash blotting out most of northern Europe.

Then the nation's most ebullient tabloid took it upon itself to shred the "Welsh windbag" Neil Kinnock and to claim victory for its campaigning techniques after John Major defied the pollsters and a recession and scored an unexpected win.

Nearly 20 years later and The Sun finds itself at the heart of the campaign. It spoiled Gordon Brown's last party conference by declaring for the Conservatives a few hours after his speech and it has since wasted little time boosting David Cameron's prospects.

It is also running the YouGov daily tracker poll - our best guide to the ups and downs of this rollercoaster campaign.

Today, much to its chagrin, The Sun is forced to report that Nick Clegg is out in front, just ahead of the Tories and 7 points up on Labour - a result that would still make Brown leader of the largest party in Parliament and
presumably keep him in No 10.

In the absence of any signs of a concerted Tory counter-offensive against the Lib Dems, the press, led by The Sun but also including a so far lukewarm Daily Mail, are hitting back. They are driving home the message that a vote for Clegg will keep Brown as Prime Minister.

Across two pages today, The Sun puts Lib Dem policies to the test of public opinion, finding that of his top 10 plans for the country, six are rejected by voters and only three (tax, public sector pay limits and voting reform)
win support.

Anxious candidates fighting Lib Dems might find the poll helpful when it comes to mounting their own fightback on the ground.

But policy is not what is driving the Lib Dem surge. It is Clegg's dubious claim to represent a new kind of politics - to be the voice of a disenchanted public infuriated by the expenses scandal - that is the real

All now seems to turn on the second TV debate on Thursday. The Tory high command has to find a way of demonstrating that Clegg's claims are spurious and that only Cameron can rescue the country from its current malaise.

Nick Wood, Managing Director, Media Intelligence Partners

18 Apr 2010 11:47:15

Time to fire up the attack dogs (but Cameron must stay positive)

Nick Wood's daily High Noon column.

Last Sunday I observed that the real contest in this election was Cameron versus Clegg. This Sunday, after the oxygen of publicity afforded nice Mr Clegg by the first of the Leaders' Debates, political prediction has become political fact.

SundayPapers One poll - for today's Mail on Sunday - puts the Lib Dems ahead and the others all have them closing fast on the two main parties.

The general election is in danger of becoming some vast by-election in which the Lib Dem bandwagon gathers pace and more people clamber aboard as the belief takes hold that they can actually win.

The biggest obstacle to Lib Dem progress is the widely held perception that voting for them is a wasted vote. But it is harder to argue that point as they and their Leader surge in the polls and growing numbers of the public say that they actively want all this to end in a hung Parliament.

So how does David Cameron stop the orange bandwagon?

First, the Conservatives need to go negative - and fast. They need to drive home the message that a hung Parliament would be a disaster for a country mired in an economic crisis and desperately in need of a government with the mandate and the courage to take tough decisions on tax and spending.

Second, they need to neutralise Clegg's most beguiling argument - that he and his party represent something new as opposed to the "old politics" of Tory and Labour. This is a bit rich coming from a party whose salad days coincided with the reign of Queen Victoria. What is new about tracing your political ancestry back to Gladstone and Lloyd George? Clegg is not really Leader of the Lib Dems. He is Leader of the None of the Above Party, tapping into the sense of disgust and betrayal felt by many people about politicians in general after the expenses scandal. But Clegg and his party are not untouched by financial chicanery, as Harry Phibbs so effectively pointed out yesterday. Clegg's hypocrisy over expenses needs to be exposed.

Third, the Conservatives must bring home to the public the left-wing nature of Lib Dem policy. They are soft on crime and immigration, in favour of the euro and all things European, instinctive tax raisers and spenders, weak on defence and generally bossy and bureaucratic.

Fourth, as the polls all too readily confirm, the grin on Gordon's face is getting bigger as the Lib Dem surge promises to keep him in Downing Street for another five years.

Continue reading "Time to fire up the attack dogs (but Cameron must stay positive)" »

16 Apr 2010 12:35:18

Nick Wood: Do you agree with Nick?

Nick WoodNick Wood's daily High Noon column.

"I agree with Nick" turned out to be Gordon Brown's mantra last night in the Leaders' Debates. Rather than carpet bomb us with statistics, Gordon love bombed nice Mr Clegg seven times by saying they were in agreement on a string of matters ranging from immigration to Lords reform.

And - to judge from the instant polling - so did much of the country.

Cameron is now in a three-way fight, with his rivals all too ready to join forces to push him to the sidelines. No surprise there. If anything, the Liberals are to the Left of Labour. Vote Clegg, get Brown has never been more true. And never has a Lib Dem leader woken up to headlines as good as this morning.

So how should CCHQ respond?

The current strategy is to add Conservative voices to the "I agree with Nick" chorus. The idea is that by cuddling up to the Lib Dems, the Tories can reassure their softer supporters that it is safe to switch to the blue corner.

But is this really credible now that Clegg is on the brink of hitting 25% in the polls and thereby denying significant Tory gains from the Liberals in the south and west of England?

After all, among the top 100 marginal seats, 24 are Lib Dem held. Cameron needs to take all those seats to be in with a chance of an overall victory. Right now that does not seem very likely.

Of course, a Lib Dem surge could threaten Labour in the north. But Brown will calculate that a few losses is a price worth paying to keep the Tories at bay in the south.

Time for a change of strategy. Not so much love bombing as a few surgical strikes.

The overall message should be that by voting for Clegg you are voting for five more years of Gordon Brown. "I agree with Nick" should be plastered across every billboard in the land along with a picture of the Lib-Lab twins.

But CCHQ has got to fire some missiles at the main pillars of Lib Dem policy.

It could start by pointing out that that nice Mr Clegg plans a £17 billion tax raid on the middle classes to fund his tax cut for low earners. Do the gravel drive brigade know that? And do they want to see their personal tax bills spiral?

And then it could move on to entertain the nation by highlighting the myriad confusions and contradictions across the Lib Dem policy smorgasbord.

It might also be worth reminding the public that Clegg is a eurofanatic who is soft on immigration and would have us bailing out the Greeks in a jiffy.

The Liberals need to discover that with novelty comes curiosity and with curiosity comes scrutiny, as Michael Gove has said.

As one senior Lib Dem adviser put it to me this morning, Cameron did not seem to have a game plan to deal with Clegg last night. Come round two next Thursday that will have to change. Otherwise the Lib-Lab love affair could become a more permanent arrangement.

Nick Wood, Managing Director, Media Intelligence Partners

15 Apr 2010 11:54:23

David Cameron needs to show some grit, convey some anger and tell a joke or two during tonight's debate


Nick Wood previews tonight's leaders' debate.

Nick WoodAuthenticity, passion, incisiveness, grit - and above all humour. These are the qualities David Cameron has to display tonight in the first of the Leaders' Debates.

Cameron goes into the debate in the unenviable position of being the front-runner. Or to put it another way, he has most to lose.

The spin-doctors have been hard at work massaging expectations. Dave, comfortable in the role of being his own spin-doctor, has divulged that he is "nervous" at the prospect of the contest.

Labour's black ops brigade have told The Times the hilarious news that Gordon is struggling in training, giving long-winded answers overflowing with reams of statistics.

Mr Clegg, who has the greatest opportunity tonight to make new friends in Middle England, appears the most relaxed of the trio. His final pre-match warm-up will consist of a long walk in the Pennines. His seconds will be hoping that he gets back in time and doesn't disappear in a cloud of volcanic ash, presumably Iceland's revenge for Britain pulling the plug on its banking system.

Cameron has already made the most memorable contribution to the campaign. His Big Society versus Big State manifesto will be remembered - for good or ill - long after the dust has settled on the election.

Its boldness is impressive, but the doubt remains that like many a Hilton/Letwin confection it has gone over the heads of much of the country. As Ken Clarke might put it, does it pass the "wet Wednesday in Walsall" test? It might win intrigue university professors but will it mean much to voters in the Midlands worried about the familiar staples of taxes, health care and immigration (so far virtually unmentioned in the Conservative

Politics abhors a vacuum. In the absence of a full-scale row about sorting out the deficit, which has so far only engaged the Lib Dems, personality may come to define and determine this election.

Expectations of that misfiring adding machine Mr Brown are so low that all he has to do is smile at the right time for the Labour spin machine to declare him the winner. Provided Campbell, Mandelson and Co can reprogramme him as a human being for the night, Gordon may even get off the canvas.

Cameron, the star of unscripted, impromptu communication, has a higher hurdle to jump. His verbal dexterity and fluency is exceptional but he must not come across as slick and superficial - which will be how Brown will try to paint him. Gordon's "no time for a novice", his best line as PM, will never be far from his mind.

Cameron needs to show some grit, some rough edges, just like his "Fire up the Quattro" alter ego DCI Gene Hunt. He has to convey some genuine anger at the state of the country, brought low economically, socially and politically by Labour's spectacular mismanagement of our affairs. And he needs a joke or two about poor clunky Gordon.

As for Clegg, roaming the moors in search of a soundbite, he is the guy with lucky break. It is like Federer and Nadal making the Wimbledon final and then inviting one of the beaten quarter-finalists to join them on Centre

It will be tough for Cameron playing against two conventional leftists. If he comes out on top he will have taken another significant step to Downing Street.

Nick Wood, Managing Director, Media Intelligence Partners

14 Apr 2010 12:28:54

The Mail remains lukewarm in its support of the Conservatives but The Times appears ready to endorse Cameron

Nick Wood's daily High Noon column.

David Cameron will be pleased with the press coverage of yesterday's manifesto launch.

He is widely credited with bringing a lack-lustre contest to life and, in the words of The Daily Telegraph, giving us a Big Idea to tussle over.

He has also framed the terms of the debate - Big Society versus Big State - and one that works to his advantage.

To a greater or lesser extent, The Sun, Telegraph, Express, Mail and Times are all on board. Even The Guardian was generous about the Tory pitch.

"The new manifesto is a liberal Tory prospectus from a party which wants to capture the centre ground in an election it believes it can win," said its editorial.

The Times signalled that it will be supporting Cameron come polling day.

“Manifestos are expected to be boring. This one is not. It is thought-provoking, imaginative and intelligent."

"It is worldly, open-minded and peppered with ideas from other countries. It is pragmatic, but it is more than merely a ragbag of policies. In the parlous state of the economy and the public finances, there is an opportunity to unleash entrepreneurial spirit and reshape the State.

"In the Conservative Party there is a group of people making a powerful case that good government can cost less and do more.”

DAILY-MAIL The Mail will worry Cameron though. Outstripped only by The Sun in circulation terms, it is Middle England's favourite paper and one read most widely by women, generally reckoned to hold the key to the outcome of this election. No wonder that three female members of the Shadow Cabinet featured in yesterday's warm-up act for Cameron.

Once again the Mail does not put the Tories on page one. It doesn't even give him a front page picture - unlike the Express. And its leader is lukewarm by tabloid standards.

Continue reading "The Mail remains lukewarm in its support of the Conservatives but The Times appears ready to endorse Cameron" »

13 Apr 2010 12:34:44

Nick Wood: David Cameron's vision of a Big Society is a genuinely radical idea which is in tune with Tory traditions

Nick Wood Nick Wood gives his daily take on the campaign.

In the red corner, the Big State. In the blue corner, the Big Society. The battlelines are drawn today by David Cameron as he unveils the Conservative Party manifesto.

The media, ever anxious for a bit of colour to enliven the story, will contrast the garish Stalinist realism illustrating Labour's prospectus with the sober imagery of the Tory pitch for the nation's support.

A laughably phoney optimism from grumpy old Gordon Brown is pitted against an offering from baby-faced Mr Cameron positively dripping with gravitas. It is a neat clash of imagery with both leaders seeking to neutralise their negatives - gloom in Gordon's case, inexperience in Dave's.

But the real difference lies beneath the cover. Gordon may have so shattered the economy that he can no longer seek to bribe the voters with their own money - or more accurately bribe the voters with money borrowed from foreign investors. But for all the Blairite gloss, the great, lumbering Big State still lurks beneath the surface gobbling up £650 billion of our money every year and hungry for more as soon as there is any sign of an economic upturn.

Cameron is facing in the opposite direction with his notion that the Big Society can replace the Big State. It is both a genuinely radical idea and one in tune with the Tory tradition, from Burke's little platoons to the Trust the People message of the One Nation Conservatives to Maggie Thatcher's people power revolution of the 1980s, most clearly seen with her sales of council houses.

His vision is one of a Britain where the public is no longer the passive recipient of services doled out by the Big State, be they health, education, law enforcement or care of the disadvantaged.

Continue reading "Nick Wood: David Cameron's vision of a Big Society is a genuinely radical idea which is in tune with Tory traditions" »

12 Apr 2010 12:35:41

Gordon Brown's new-found aversion to spending commitments is as believable as the cartoon drunk vowing never to touch another drop of alcohol

Nick Wood Nick Wood gives his daily take on the campaign.

"There are no big new spending commitments," says Gordon Brown in the foreword to Labour's manifesto.

That's a relief then. After a spending spree of historic proportions, which has bankrupted the economy and left us virtually defenceless in the face of the most savage recession of the post-war era, Brown has turned the taps off.

And what a spree it has been. In cash terms total public spending has doubled from £318 billion in 1997 to £644 billion this year. In 1997 the state swiped 40 per cent of national output, today it takes over 50 per cent.

And the public sector payroll has ballooned by around a million workers in the same time, boosting Labour's client state. The annual deficit stands at an eye-watering £170 billion and total national debt is around £1 trillion.

Nonetheless, the Prime Minister seems to think we should be grateful that he has finally seen the light, wittering on about his determination that every penny spent in future will be used wisely.

Really? So why doesn't he start by taking a look at the front page of today's Daily Mail, highlighting the fact that scores of health bosses, with salaries in excess of £100,000 have enjoyed pay rises of almost 7 per cent - more than twice the increase enjoyed by nurses. Scope for some savings there?

Continue reading "Gordon Brown's new-found aversion to spending commitments is as believable as the cartoon drunk vowing never to touch another drop of alcohol" »