An interesting subtext of the conference season is how Labour and the LibDems intend to attack the Tories and eat into Cameron’s opinion poll lead.
The Labour approach is to claim that the Conservatives will slash frontline services, occasionally peppered with attempts to portray Cameron and Osbourne as detached, aloof, well-heeled toffs (by, for example, having Labour campaigners prance around Crewe and Nantwich in bowler hats).
The “official” LibDem line (i.e. Clegg’s) is to assert that Cameron is a phoney. The LibDems are “the real thing”, while the Tories are an insipid “fake change” alternative.
Chris Huhne toyed with an alternative strategy – but pulled back from labeling William Hague as a modern day, Munich-putsch organising skinhead in his keynote speech. Nevertheless, in Huhne’s widely reported clash on the Today programme with Eric Pickles, he relentlessly pursued the line that Cameron’s Tories haven’t changed and are essentially right-wing extremists.
I don’t think either Huhne’s or Clegg’s approach is likely to work.
The problem with Nick’s approach is two-fold.
Firstly, it suggests that the LibDems and the Tories are merely differently brands of a very similar product. We’re Coca Cola, they’re Pepsi. We’re Guinness, they’re Beamish. We’re M&S, they’re Mr Byrite.
I bang on relentlessly about the need for us to appeal to soft Tories, but I think we need to do this by offering a superior product not merely by arguing about brand superiority.
Secondly, the electorate don’t know enough about the LibDem product for them to be able to pick up these “real” and “fake” distinctions. If the LibDems were a fizzy drink, the public probably wouldn’t think of us as Coke, they’d think of us as Panda Cola. The makers of Panda Cola don’t advertise that they are “more real” than Coke (partly because – like the LibDems – they don’t have much of a budget to advertise at all).
Chris Huhne’s approach is also flawed. The voters might not be sold on Cameron, but they do believe he is a pretty moderate bloke who has decontaminated the Tory party. “New Tories, New Danger” will be as ineffective in 2010 as the Blair red eyes advert was in 1997. Portraying Hague as a krypto-Nazi just doesn’t chime with where the public are and, anyway, isn’t remotely true.
So, my (risky) approach would be to love bomb the Tory leadership right back, in an attempt to open up clear daylight between Cameron’s frontbench and the more antediluvian elements of the Conservative party.
If Eric Pickles is attempting to seduce you on early morning radio, don’t shout down the microphone that he’s sitting there in a Gestapo outfit and an armband (apologies for the ghastly image that conjures up). Say how delighted you are that Eric and Dave are 100% fully committed to Britain’s ongoing membership of the European Union, but that you’re a mite concerned that this internationalist sentiment is not universally shared by his fellow MPs.
If the Tory leader has just been on television hugging a hoodie, explain how pleased you are that the Tory leader is embracing more liberal approaches to crime and punishment, but you hope he’s also weeding out the “flog ’em, hang ’em” wing of his party.
Support for Cameron amongst the electorate is wide, but shallow. This point is made endlessly by those arguing that the next election is still wide open. But enthusiasm for Cameron within his own party is pretty fragile too – amazingly so given their poll lead after a dozen years in the wilderness. Many think that splits and divisions will come to the surface within days (or even hours) of Cameron entering Downing Street. We’d be doing the electorate a great service by exposing these splits before polling day rather than waiting for them to naturally emerge afterwards.