This article is from the February 2013 issue of Total Politics
David Cameron agrees with Keith Joseph. He believes general elections are won on the ‘common ground’, rather than the centre ground. The PM has just 30 months to win a second term in power.
But halfway through this Parliament, he’s already laid down his strategy for the May 2015 general election. He will fight a presidential election, reminding voters they have a stark choice of leader – a tough decision-taker versus someone with rock-bottom trust – and he’ll aggressively differentiate the Tories from Labour as the party on the side of strivers versus a front bench who wrecked the economy and supported unions and skivers.
And he’ll make sure of delivery. It will be all new infrastructure and a free-wheeling, modern economy on the way back to rude health, fit to win in the global race. Fighting on the common ground is central.
The NHS has always been seen as the baby of the Left, but it’s incredibly popular with the PM. He cares, because his brave son Ivan’s entire life was spent in and out of the NHS. The PM and his wife lost count of the times they slept on hospital floors at his bedside. The creaking health service, however, is no longer fit for purpose. People are living much longer, which means more disease and especially mental illness, so the NHS must modernise or fail the very voters who need it most.
And look at justice reforms. Why should they be seen as the preserve of the right? It’s important to inject tough love into justice, the PM believes, but it’s possible for compassionate Conservatives to deliver tough prison sentences while ensuring offenders are helped to go rehabilitate.
You win widespread support in a presidential election by being on the side of common sense every time – then demonstrating your opponent is adrift.
Delivery is another priority. Cabinet ministers are regularly hauled in to face the music over a particular piece of delivery. In industry, these are known as “red team” meetings – the boss scrutinises the way a project is being handled by the team, forcing all to raise their game.
There’s a stretch of the A21 in Kent which was first given the go-ahead to become a dual carriageway 10 years ago. Soon after winning the 2010 election, Cameron himself ordered work to start. Frustratingly, to date, not a single spade has hit the ground. These are the roadblocks holding back Britain’s progress, and the premier wants to sweep away the culture that strangles momentum, because he is acutely aware the nation will judge the 2015 general election on who’s best to lead the country.
Conservatives will constantly cast doubt into voters’ minds about Labour’s handling of the economy. The PM is borrowing an Obama phrase that we’ll hear over and over again: “I don’t want to give them the keys back. They don’t know how to drive.” It’s a powerful, human reference to figures like Miliband, Balls, Burnham and Flint who were at the wheel of UK plc when it crashed into the red. “Don’t let him take us back to square one,” will be the warning to voters.
Repeatedly, voters have responded well to leaders they don’t love, but admire for doing the right thing. There’s a wealth of evidence which shows people may not like the tough tax and spend decisions, but in their hearts know they must be taken.
Cameron has vowed his coalition will tackle the difficult decisions that successive administrations have ducked. The pensions of many who work for the state, for example, are way out of kilter with those in the private sector, and he’s determined to fix the problem. Otherwise, they risk crippling the country for generations to come.
The PM believes Ed Miliband has been tactically astute but strategically dumb, having forced Labour into a corner of opposing everything. That’s not consistent, says Cameron – it was Andrew Adonis, after all, who came up with the plan for academies and free schools – and the PM was happy to praise and adapt the idea when he came to power.
Demonstrating the dividing lines between Conservative and Labour is critical because polls show Labour is not always in tune with the public on issues. The vast majority of people support the idea of capping benefit rises by one per cent, and media coverage of the January Commons debate on the issue was positive for the PM. He will be looking for more Commons moments to force Labour onto the “wrong side” of the argument.
And now he’s building his war cabinet. As I predicted in the autumn, new figures are signing up to Team Cameron. Lynton Crosby has been hired to deliver the Cameron strategy, while the very savvy Neil O’Brien joins George Osborne’s Treasury team along with former BBC producer Thea Rogers.
Having a No 10 operation running the country and a separate outfit planning the election risks a ‘left hand, right hand’ disaster, however. So when crunch time comes, Craig Oliver will run the air war, Stephen Gilbert the ground war and Crosby will focus on the big picture.
After all, it worked for Boris Johnson.
George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications