When Michael Howard led the Conservatives – happy days – his campaign strategist was a man named Lynton Crosby. You may have heard of him. He is the highly paid Australian consultant who has told all at Tory HQ, and has been telling them for months, that if they just keep banging on about how great the economy is, and how awful Ed Miliband is, then one morning they will wake up and the neck and neck polls will have transformed into a ten point lead, which on May 7 will translate into a Parliamentary majority. Ahem.
He is the same man who used to say to Michael Howard. ‘You know, Michael, I think we have done immigrants to death. We have pretty much maxed out on Europe. We need to turn some fire on gypsies living in caravans near nice middle England houses!!!’ I kid you not. Political anoraks may remember, the days that Howard spent droning on about gypsies, the right-wing papers ventilating his vileness. I remember it as the moment I knew we would win a third term, despite all the problems Iraq was bringing.
I sense something similar happening as we see Michael Fallon, Defence Secretary but basically a solid loyal party hack, being wheeled out to equate Ed Miliband’s filial relations to his alleged inability to be trusted with national security. Fallon is not unintelligent, and I suspect he didn’t sleep terribly well after being briefed by Crosby to deliver this barrel-load of bollocks. It was not really him speaking. It was panic. And it wasn’t Fallon’s panic speaking. It was Crosby’s and Cameron’s.
There is another overseas strategist involved in the Cameron team, namely American Jim Messina, who worked for Barack Obama’s brilliant campaigns, but who is clearly politically malleable enough to cross over to the dark side. I tried to interview Messina for my book on WINNERS, (this was to talk about Obama, not Cameron, who failed to win the 2010 election on the easiest playing field imaginable). He sent me a very nice reply, saying I was a hero and an inspiration (he is American don’t forget) but then saying he felt it would be misunderstood if we met, so could it wait till after May 7. He has also said that he has never lost a campaign yet, and he is ‘damned if the first defeat is going to be to Ed Miliband.’
That comment has always stuck in the back of my mind. It is in there somewhere with one of George Bush’s best GWBisms, namely that he got to the top by being ‘mis-underestimated.’ I wonder if the Ed Miliband the Tories are taking on, and their media slaves are demonising, is the Ed Miliband they want to see in front of them, not the one who is there.
An American who is quoted in my book is David Axelrod, Obama strategist who has also been working with Ed. ‘Conventional wisdoms are almost always wrong,’ he says. Now ‘always’ may overstate it, but he certainly has a point. When a party has the press sewn up to the extent that the Tories have, with several of the papers really little more than cartoon propaganda sheets – gosh, did the Sun really find an anonymous ‘very senior civil servant’ (not just senior you note!) to say that they couldn’t imagine Ed Miliband in charge of national security? – there is a danger that those inside the Tory bubble believe their own bullshit.
It goes like this. They brief out lines to the effect that the economy is doing great, and Miliband and Ed Balls would be a disaster. Papers lap them up, and invent a few of their own. Then the broadcasters read the papers, and that gives them the lie of the land – (see what I did there?)- and that sets the tone of the debate, and over time that creates the backdrop for the campaign.
But what happens if the attacks aren’t working? What happens if the public, in large numbers, start to feel that their lives and living standards do not seem to match the Booming Britain that Cameron, Osborne, The Sun, The Mail, The Express, The Times and the Telegraph boom away about all day and every day? And what happens if, the more they see of Ed Miliband, unmediated through this biased and hostile prism, the more they think ‘you know what, he seems to get my life more than Cameron and Osborne and all the other Bullingdons are ever going to do?’
What happens, in my estimation, is the kind of panic we saw being ventriloquised through Michael Fallon this morning.
There are some wonderful insights from the chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in my book. One is that you should only change strategy if the fundamentals change. Normally, I would agree with that. But what happens when – as inside the Tory bubble – they have totally persuaded themselves that the fundamentals – economy and leadership – are solid, but they appear to have hit the ceiling in terms of the support they can build upon them? It tells me that the fundamentals are not as strong as they like to think.
As a Labour supporter, I felt thoroughly heartened when I read overnight about this latest pre-planned Crosby-Fallon attack. It showed that of the three things you need for a campaign – 1, record, 2, future vision and policy, and 3,attack on opponents – they have given up on 1 and 2, and are going all out for 3. Oh, except when it comes to the SNP, where they are treating everything Nicola Sturgeon says as akin to tablets laid down by Moses, because she is their best bet in terms of helping Cameron cling on to power that he is incapable of winning on his own. (oh, and by the way, she did badly in the Scottish leaders’ debate against Jim Murphy last night, and is wide open for attack on what ‘full fiscal autonomy’ means both for the Scottish and UK economies).
One should never underestimate your opponents, another lesson from WINNERS. I have never underestimated Crosby, just not been as impressed as (some) Tory MPs and Tory commentators appear to be. Perhaps I do underestimate Cameron, but having worked closely with Prime Ministers, I think I have good reason, because he has not been a good leader of the country, and constantly confuses strategy and tactics. Both seem to me to have failed to see how the nature of politics has changed, and with it the demands placed upon a campaign in a different age to the one when Crosby and Cameron were misadvising Michael Howard.
Two campaigns in a row now, Cameron has led a lacklustre and negative campaign. As the Opposition, that is more understandable. But as the government, there is something rather desperate about it. At least their Scottish leader, Ruth Davidson, appears to have a bit of real fight in her. Cameron is over-managed, over-manicured, over-the-top in the attacks on Ed, who is coming over as rather sensible, rather decent, calm, resilient, and separating out the noise from what really matters rather well. That is another trait required of WINNERS.