For weeks staff at the Conservative campaign headquarters in London’s Victoria Street have been counting the days since the party attacked over asylum and immigration. At first the opinion polls did not shift.
But the shadow cabinet was given clear guidance by Lynton Crosby, the campaign director who steered Australia’s conservative government to unlikely election victories and who is now the indisputable master of the Tory campaign.
It would take seven days, he said, for an idea to travel from a Westminster policy announcement to the media and then the public. Then it would take at least another seven days for the issue to shift public opinion, then reach the pollsters and finally the newspapers in a published poll.
So this week’s ICM/Guardian poll was bang on cue, coming after Mr Howard set out his warning that Britain was “full” and immigration quotas were the answer.
The poll, published on Tuesday, showed the Labour lead had been cut from nine points to three points—too big a change to put down to the polling margin of error.
When the news reached the Conservative headquarters campaign early on Monday evening, there was a mild outpouring of relief.
Further good poll news for the Tories came yesterday from Mori in the Financial Times, which reported the Labour lead was down to two points.
One poll may not an electoral victory make—and today’s internet poll in the Telegraph gives Labour a six-point lead—but two have at least cheered Tory campaigners.
The two polls did not match precisely. The Labour lead had been cut in the Guardian by seeing its own ratings fall. In the case of the Financial Times the Tory progress was at the expense of a squeeze on the Liberal Democrats, down four points on the previous month to 18 points, its lowest rating on a Mori poll since May 2004.
How has it happened? A right of centre shadow cabinet member puts the shift down to the party’s tough campaigning. “We have spent 3 years discussing whether we are a liberal party, and in the last six months we have worked out we are after all a conservative party. A lot of it is down to listening to Lynton Crosby,” he said.
The change of mood has been swift. Only two weeks ago David Cameron, the party’s policy coordinator, ruminated in private that although the party was hitting all the right buttons it was failing to make an impact with the electorate. The focus group findings continually came back: “What are the Tories saying?”
Liam Fox, the party chairman, had become so desperate about the party’s defeatist mood that he called a morale-boosting session with Conservative MPs on February 4. Billed as “Overstating Labour”, Mr Fox tried to convince his colleagues that Labour poll leads were not based on reality. But one left-of-centre Tory MP who attended the event described it as “a pretty unconvincing attempt to persuade us troops we are not heading for the firing squad”.
This week the mood has changed thanks to the polls. Mr Crosby is now in untrammelled control of the campaign, sending out a covering note with the morning line to take to MPs and telling them where the party is going next.
Lord Saatchi, the elegant party co-chairman who has had spats with Mr Crosby in the past, now knows he is predominantly in charge of advertising not strategy.
Liam Fox is running the hi-tech weapon bought from America known as voter vault which targets swing-voters in marginal seats.
Mr Crosby also breeds optimism, believes in clarity and unlike anyone else has no political agenda other than a good Tory performance.
“He will neither benefit or suffer if we fail—he will go back to Australia”, said one of the more patrician Tories. One of Mr Crosby’s skills is running campaigns from behind, and running them as a battle against the governing establishment. He has also honed the party’s message: it is now clearly fighting on populist ground, above all crime and immigration.
This contrasts with last summer when the Tories tried to seize the traditionally Labour agenda of health and education by highlighting choice, a move that led to a clever response from Tony Blair through the government’s five-year plans.
Now the Tories talk much less about choice in public services. They now favour symbolic issues such as discipline in schools and cleanliness in hospitals, symbolised by MRSA, and the need for matrons to patrol hospital wards.
But it is the immigration and asylum issue that has galvanised the party’s fortunes, and in the words of one campaign staffer, given them “permission” to be heard on other issues.
With one advert in the Sunday Telegraph, and one press conference, Mr Howard has for the moment transformed his fortunes. On the Mori poll index, asylum and immigration is now listed unprompted as one of the most important two or three issues by 40% of the electorate, up 14 points in a month.
The Tories have been lucky. Earlier indifference to their announcements means Mr Howard can unveil old policy as new.
Another intriguing aspect of the Tory turnaround is the misfiring Labour campaign. Take what happened to Oliver Letwin: when his James report on government waste was published, he was braced for an attack from the usually on-the-ball Gordon Brown. To his astonishment no attack came.
Politics is notoriously febrile. But the Tory view this week is that at least now they are back in the game.
Month that tripped up Labour
Tory move: On January 17 shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin set out the James review—promising £4bn in government spending cuts while protecting services
Labour’s response: Failure to grapple with the opposition allowed Mr Letwin’s claim to have found £35bn in savings to pass by default.
Tory move: On January 24 Michael Howard set out a tough line on immigration, triggering a media storm even though much was already party policy
Labour response: The government was caught on the hop—its planned immigration policy launch a week later looked like a hasty and insufficient follow up
Tory move: On February 14 the opposition revealed plans to impose compulsory health checks on migrants
Labour response: The Tory announcement was not new, but instead of pointing this out Labour tried to play down the story by claiming health checks were also government policy. This let the Tories keep the debate on their chosen territory, immigration
Tory move: On February 16 Mr Howard promised to abolish waiting lists and eradicate the MRSA superbug
Labour’s response: It claimed Tories were helping private patients jump waiting lists. But the Tories had moved the debate about health onto the superbug
Tory move: On February 21, Tories revealed a £340 cut in council tax for pensioners.
Labour’s response: Ministers admitted that plans to reform the tax would not be in place until after the election, leaving Labour vulnerable to a pensioner backlash