Looked at from a distance, this could have been an election that was quite straightforward for the Conservatives.
The basic theory would be that if the economy was going quite strongly, an incumbent government should not really have too much trouble getting re-elected. But the Tories are in trouble. What’s happened?
The economic fundamentals are set pretty fair. The UK’s GDP growth is one of the strongest. Unemployment has been falling steadily. And thanks to a remarkable stroke of luck, from the government’s point of view, the plunging oil price has dragged inflation down to zero, making meager wage growth – at around 1.5% – look quite decent, and ending the long years of declining real pay.
That could have been the basis for a classic campaign narrative – ‘the economy is coming good – don’t let the others ruin it.’
But instead, so far, the Tory campaign feels like a series of mis-steps; and a campaign in search of a narrative.
The opening tactic was to run against Ed Miliband. All the opening messaging ignored the Labour brand – which polling shows is not unpopular – and focussed instead on Ed Miliband, where polling indicated a distinct lack of popularity. So the opening narrative was Tories (or Dave) vs Ed.
The tactic failed. Ed Miliband proved himself more than a match for this. He performed well in the debates. The more voters saw of him, the more they questioned the media-painted image. His ratings, starting from a very low point, rose steadily, even overtaking Cameron in one poll. Ed got that vital campaign asset – momentum. Furthermore, the voters disliked the negative campaigning against an individual. So the ‘decapitate Labour’ narrative was dropped.
Then came a series of policy announcements and responses, all of which reinforced Labour’s narrative of the Tories not being on ‘your side’.
The Conservatives were caught out by Labour’s non-dom abolition announcement. The party’s response was incoherent, and landed eventually in a spot where the (rich) non-doms were being defended.
Then came a series of announcements that seemed to be the result of much rummaging around in the ‘hits of the 80s’ box. First, a big policy announcement on inheritance tax. But this left the party talking about people with £1 million homes. That neutralized attempts to get positioned with the famous ‘hard working families’. And opened up Labour’s line on the ‘millionaires’ tax cut’ once again.
Then came the reincarnation of the ‘right to buy’ – this time for housing association tenants. But the policy met with criticism from the associations and thereafter seemed to come off the rails. It was seen by many as a taxpayer subsidy for a lucky minority. Polling showed that less than a quarter of voters backed the policy.
Then came a reincarnation of ‘popular capitalism’ in the form of cut-price Lloyds Bank shares. But that was an echo of the ‘get rich quick’ 80s, which is well out of favour in an era of austerity, when many households haven’t the surplus cash to invest in share offers. The critique for opponents was straightforward – we all helped rescue the banks, why should only those with a bit of extra cash benefit from the re-sale?
So the policy initiatives brought no poll lift, and tended only to reinforce Labour’s narrative of who the Tories were interested in.
So – should it be back to the core economic narrative? The trouble is it’s hard for the Conservatives to know exactly how to pitch this. Claim that the economy is fixed, and they would meet only scepticism and charges of complacency. Claim that it isn’t fixed, and the ‘plan that works’, mantra starts to flop. The result is uncertain, or mixed messaging, on the economy, which, in theory, should be the central plank of the Tory narrative.
Can anything pull things back on course for the final two weeks?
The most likely candidate is Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. Here’s perhaps a fortuitous bogeyperson to fuel the current narrative of Labour minority + SNP = ‘chaos’. But does it play beyond the Conservative’s core vote? While polls resolutely point to the Conservatives failing to secure a majority, does this line of attack only invite questioning about who David Cameron might deal with, and on what terms? It isn’t clear that this is a break-out issue for a stumbling campaign. Furthermore, it’s quite a complex argument for most voters, and comes across as a politician’s issue, rather than a voter’s issue, so it runs the risk of irrelevance to voters concentrating on pocket book concerns.
Can anything be done? One suspects there is a lot of cash left in the Tory campaign coffers. Maybe a phenomenal blitz of swing voters in the key marginal seats over the last two weeks?
Is there still a reliance in Tory HQ that ‘clinging to nurse’ will, in the final lap, bring enough uncertain voters back to the Tory fold? Maybe.
But all the lurching from one narrative to another suggests a campaign that has not exactly gone according to plan.