As my Alphaville colleagues would say, it’s tin hat time for the Conservatives. You don’t have to believe the huge Lib Dem poll surge in its entirety to know both parties have a big problem. Labour is counting on the Clegg boost doing enough to deny the Tories a majority (and possibly even the largest number of seats) but not becoming so strong as to do real damage to Mr Brown. It is also enjoying the Conservative discomfort and counting on the Cameron campaign self-destructing. This seems understandable but very risky. The Lib Dem surge could leave Mr Brown hanging on but it is surely not something around which to build a strategy.
Mr Cameron has a more fundamental problem. Unlike Mr Brown he was in control of his destiny and needs to be so again if he is to win. He had a simple plan – to persuade voters that he was the change they so desperately want But he has allowed himself to be sidetracked from that message (bleating on about a national insurance contributions rise few understand) and in the TV debate the change mantle was seized by Mr Clegg. Mr Cameron’s team have made the schoolboy error of thinking that winning a media war on NI contributions was the same as winning round voters. It wasn’t.
The Tory leader’s problem is that he will now be buffetted by those around him demanding he “take the fight to the Liberals” or toughen up his message on core issues like immigration or Europe. Here, for example is Nick Wood, a former party spinner, writing on Conservative Home.
Both would be wrong. There is no point in “taking the fight” to the Lib Dems as they are not the problem. The problem is that he has stopped looking like the change he promises. Alastair Campbell’s blog offers some very sound insights on this. He’s hardly on Mr Cameron’s side but he makes the key point that Mr Cameron needs to get back to campaigning on his big ideas, not least the “Big Society”.
I assumed from your manifesto launch – The Big Society to the fore – that this would form a major part of your TV debate pitch. You just dropped it. Then when everyone pointed out that you had just dropped it, you came back to it, as per today’s Observer article. But it is either a strategic building block or it isn’t. If it is, keep on it. If it isn’t, shut up. But decide for heaven’s sake.
Mr Campbell is right. If this is the big idea then Mr Cameron must keep hammering at it, offering voters a vision of a better Britain. The difficulty appears that Mr Cameron seems unsure whether it is a slogan or a strategy. Mr Campbell rightly states the “strategic heavy lifting” needed to be done before the campaign began.
There is one tactic he can and should use on the Liberal Democrats which is to suggest they they will let Labour hang on. In other words show that they are not the change. But trying to pick apart Lib Dem policies is pointless.
David Cameron has not sealed the deal because he still lacks definition. He has created the impression that the Tories are trying to win the election with slogans rather than strategy. The lack of definition adds to the suspicion that he is just a slick salesman peddling the same old thing. He has a little over two weeks to reclaim the initiative and offer voters a sense of how voting for him is voting for change. This is not a cause for panic but it requires him to believe in the strategy which won him the party leadership and carry it through with ruthless conviction. Even this may not be enough but of all the paths in front of him, it is the only one which offers hope.