Book review: Why the Tories Won - The Inside Story of the 2015 Election
The 2015 election result was a shock to most politicians, pollsters, the media and foreign observers. All the polls appeared to point consistently during the campaign to a hung Parliament, with perhaps advantage Labour. And yet the result produced a Conservative majority government, a Labour wipe out in Scotland and no break through for UKIP. What happened?
Tim Ross is a political journalist in the Lobby and has interviewed politicians, party workers in their headquarters, pollsters and journalists to answer the question in Why The Tories Won. His sources are invariably given as “Private interview” or “Private information”, thought insiders can probably guess the unnamed source.
This is not a ponderous academic work full of statistics and footnotes, but written in a commendable journalistic style with real insights and interesting conclusions. It isn’t just an account of the success of the Tories or the failure of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. But if the book has a key figure, if not a hero, it is the Australian Lynton Crosby, who had been called in to grip Boris Johnson’s chaotic second term mayoral campaign, and who was persuaded in 2012 to do the same for the Conservative General Election campaign.
Both Cameron and Osborne had recognised that their 2010 election campaign had lacked a simple theme, had wasted resources and there was no one campaign director at the centre. Crosby brought real professionalism and asked for and got complete authority. The winning campaign of 2015 was prepared and implemented over the two previous years.
What Ross shows is that Crosby recruited the best campaigners and pollsters, and carried out specific and detailed continuous polling in priority seats – Conservative marginals, but also Labour marginals, and increasingly in “safe” Lib Dem seats in the south and south west. Much of this work was done without many Conservatives, let alone political opponents or journalists being aware.
Experts on social media were used so that potential Conservative voters could be identified and communicated with on specific issues important to them.
Ross shows that Crosby and his team were integrated at CCHQ and he established a fierce discipline on the campaign, the messaging and the use of resources. It is obvious that without the successful fund raising by Lord Feldman a lot of this could not have been achieved. Thanks to the tracker surveys – daily in many target seats, Crosby had a sophisticated picture that was denied to other parties or even major pollsters.
Two significant events helped to guarantee a Tory majority. Crosby’s realisation that Lib Dem seats could be taken and that voters in those constituencies were persuadable, especially when the polls indicated a Labour majority supported by the SNP, to vote Conservative. And the likelihood of the SNP propping up a Labour government enthused Conservatives to vote and persuaded many UKIP inclined voters to support the Conservatives.
Ross shows that the Crosby operation relied upon stealth and exploiting detailed, continuously updated, personal information in about one hundred seats. The other parties, and journalists had no idea of what was happening. Indeed many Conservative candidates and activists were convinced that Labour in particular were winning the ground war.
The rise of the SNP was crucial in destroying any ability Labour had of being the majority Party and activating an anti-Labour/SNP backlash in England and Wales.
Ross shows that the Conservatives made errors, and Cameron’s tendency to ad lib could have been disastrous – his off the cuff comment that he would stand down as leader and PM in the next Parliament was never fully exploited by Labour. Surprising given that Cameron was always more popular that either the Conservative Party or Miliband.
Although Crosby and his inner team were confident that all their polling showed the Conservatives would be the largest Party and would have a majority, there was no such certainty on election night in the minds of Cameron and Osborne, or indeed Miliband and Clegg. Hence the shock of the BBC exit poll.
Political campaigning, the targeting of votes, communication, the importance of political leaders goes in cycles. Advantage Conservative in 2015 – advantage Labour in 1997. Why the Tories Won is a book that Labour and Lib Dems should read carefully. As should Tory MPs who will need to think carefully about the qualities and leadership skills of Cameron’s successor – particularly those required to convince the electorate rather than their own activists.
Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland. Why the Tories Won: The Inside Story of the 2015 Election is published by Biteback