The Tories must unleash their secret weapon

Published by The Daily Telegraph (18th April, 2015)

Ed Miliband can be accused of many things, but he cannot be faulted for lack of determination. As rivals know to their cost, including his own brother, he has a resolute streak – and this has taken him from barely-noticed backroom boy in Gordon Brown’s team to standing on the threshold of Downing Street. Slowly but surely, and with the experience of a lifetime’s schooling in politics, he grinds out the results to fulfil his grand ambitions.

This could be seen again in the latest televised debate, in which he stood – leaning on his lectern and looking into the camera as coached – defending his newly-discovered desire for financial probity. The stance may lack credibility given his party’s spendthrift history. But as a trio of Left-wing party leaders assailed him over austerity, Mr Miliband remained calm and self-assured. He even, dare I say it, looked almost prime ministerial – at least compared with the other numpties shouting at him in the second-division debate.

And this presents a problem for the Conservatives, since their campaign is so focused on ramming home two central messages: that they are the only people who can be trusted to run the economy and that a bumbling Labour leader cannot be trusted with the keys to No 10. The economic news gets better by the day, with unemployment falling again and the International Monetary Fund saying the Coalition’s economic strategy has clearly worked. But it is not moving the polls. Meanwhile the politically-astute Mr Miliband is, once again, doing his best to prove his doubters wrong – and with some success.

It is easy to exaggerate the rise in his personal ratings, which remain deep in negative territory. ‘He has gone from catastrophically bad to merely terrible,’ said one pollster sardonically. Much of this minor improvement has come from those already committed to voting Labour; indeed, both mainstream parties have shored up support on their own sides while failing to win over waverers or those angered by Westminster’s shenanigans. But with the pair still locked in dead heat, surely it is time for the Tories to unshackle their most potent campaigning weapon: the Prime Minister.

It is remarkable that even now, after 10 years as Tory leader and a torrid time holding together a fractious coalition, voters have a positive perception of David Cameron. True, it is only marginally positive – but his leadership ratings are 30 points better than those of his main rival despite public spending cuts and the anti-politics mood of the country. He may be seen as posh, but voters respond to his affability and easy-going charm; even Labour supporters tell me they don’t like the policies but the man ‘seems a decent bloke’. His wife, meanwhile, is hugely popular even with traditionally anti-Tory young voters.

Yet Mr Cameron’s energy, enthusiasm and natural optimism have been constrained in this dreary campaign constructed by election chief Lynton Crosby. There was a brief flash during the manifesto launch, which felt more like Cameron unplugged, with talk of personal motivation and patriotic pride in a ‘buccaneering, world-beating, can-do country’. But for the most part his appeal has been dulled by a narrow and nervous strategy, one seeking to nudge a few voters into the blue camp with tactical feints rather than attempting to inspire the nation.

You have to wonder how a party led by a character such as Mr Cameron appears to be losing London to a Labour that has shifted Left, sees the capital as a cash cow and distrusts wealth-creators. The reason, of course, is that parties are complex brands and voters’ opinions are formed over many years. Still, what a contrast this Tory campaign offers with 2010, which may have been muddled but at least played to the Tory leader’s strengths. ‘Where’s the hope, the breadth, the vision?’ asked one leading figure from the previous campaign. ‘I wouldn’t get out of bed to vote for them this time round.’

Take Labour’s favourite issue of health. Mr Cameron’s passion and personal narrative neutralised this weak point last time. Yet this time there has been a mood of defeatism following the bungled health reforms, encouraged by Mr Crosby’s strange belief that brand defects are best ignored. So there has been the sudden pledge of an extra £8 billion – and that’s about it. Why so reticent? There is actually surprisingly high public satisfaction with the NHS, and Labour’s health spokesman is indelibly linked to the worst health-care scandal in recent times.

This is an enthralling battle for Britain’s future. Yet the Tories seem reliant on the idea that a much-heralded shift in the polls will appear in the dog days of the contest, driven by concerns over Mr Miliband. Certainly, there is a small undecided slice of the electorate – perhaps three in every 100 voters – who instinctively dislike the Conservative Party, but trust it on the economy and prefer the Prime Minister to his Labour rival. These people could hold the difference between victory and defeat. They will need more than barbs and brickbats to win over.

Mr Cameron is famously at his best in deep water. Now he needs to put aside any caution, renew his sense of purpose, unleash his optimism and prove his desire to remain in office. As one leading Labour light said: ‘It is Cameron’s for the taking if he looks like he wants it.’

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