Cameron hoping party will uncover from Ukip damage in time for general election

Opinion: Tories hope to scare electorate by painting opponents as Old Labour villains


This week in Manchester, a pollster laid out detailed figures for Conservative Party delegates gathered for their annual conference. If an election were held today, Labour’s Ed Miliband would become prime minister, with a majority of nearly 90. If the election were not to be held until May 2015, he would also become prime minister – if current trends stay the same. His majority, however, would be less than 20.

The figures are explained by the rise of the UK Independence Party, which, according to the currently prevailing logic, will win most seats in next year’s European Parliament elections.

The same logic argues that Ukip’s support will at that point start to fall away again, with Conservative-leaning voters, feeling that they have put some manners on David Cameron, returning to the fold.

The logic is questionable on a number of fronts, even if Ukip manages to demonstrate yet again its unerring ability to parade unreconstructed fools intent on expressing antediluvian opinions in front of cameras.

On Monday, several hundred people gathered in Manchester’s Town Hall for a meeting of the Eurosceptic Bruges Group, which includes Conservatives, Ukip members and others.

There, Conservative MP Bill Cash was ridiculed to his face by Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who rejected talk that his party should row in behind Eurosceptic Tories to get a referendum on leaving the EU.

Pleading is never attractive, and in politics it is usually fatal, since no breed is better able to smell weakness. Most importantly, it never achieves its objective. Because of its size, Ukip cannot possibly run in 650 constituencies in 2015, so, by definition, it is likely to direct its fire elsewhere than on Eurosceptic Tories such as Cash.

If Ukip cannot win Commons seats itself, and that remains an open question, it can stop the Conservatives retaining the 32 it currently holds that are most actively targeted by Labour.

Yesterday David Cameron’s conference speech was parsed and analysed to destruction – it was judged to be boring, pedestrian, marking time, soporific.

In reality, however, the prime minister was treading water. Everything will have changed by the time Conservatives next gather for their annual conference.

Ukip will either have trounced the Conservatives and everyone else in the European elections, or not; Scotland will have voted to leave the UK, or not; green economic shoots will have grown, or died.

The physical manifestation of a Ukip victory will put the fear of God into 150, perhaps more, Conservative MPs, far beyond anything now circulating.

If that happens, the Conservatives face the danger, the near-certainty, perhaps, of looking like a disunited, cantankerous rabble by next autumn.

If the speech was dull, it was not insignificant, displaying the first real signs of the strategy that will form the core of the 2015 general election campaign.

In the speech, Labour was named 26 times – a replay, some say, of John Major’s 1992 campaign when, surprisingly, he defeated Labour’s Neil Kinnock.

Labour will be painted as the devil incarnate, ready to take the UK back to a pre-Thatcher era of union domination, price controls and shortages.

However, some of Miliband’s campaigning is working – last week’s promise to freeze energy prices is popular and will become more so as winter beckons.

Cameron regards Miliband’s action as economically illiterate, but, equally, he knows only too well that the Conservatives are seen as the party of privilege.

This understanding explains the “land of opportunity” theme of Cameron’s speech, coupled with a tearful mother on stage saying how much education reforms have done for her child.

In a bid to combat Miliband, George Osborne will act on rail season ticket prices, water bills and bank fees to help people struggling with cost-of-living rises over coming months.

Equally, Cameron and Osborne are seeking to borrow from Margaret Thatcher by increasing the number of people with mortgages with the help-to-buy programme, which lets people buy with a 5 per cent deposit.

Despite criticism, and there has been no shortage of it on the grounds that it simply repeats the debt-fuelled sins of the past, the programme’s introduction has been accelerated.

Simply put, mortgage-holders are more likely to vote Conservative, particularly those ones who can be convinced that they have reached such a stage only because of Cameron.

Furthermore, it does something to reverse Tory disfavour with women voters, who have cooled toward the Conservative leader.

Curbing child benefits has been unpopular, NHS reforms, too; the list is endless where women are taking a strikingly more negative attitude than men to the Conservatives.

The cautious tone to Cameron’s speech was partly directed at women, giving off the image of a serious man doing serious work, undistracted by political fluffery.

The message is clear – progress has been made, but titanic work remains to be done, therefore voters should stick with what they know, rather than accept Labour’s blandishments.

Under the original plans laid down in 2010, spending cuts would have been followed by speedy growth in 2011 and 2012. By now, a genuine “feel-good” factor should be abroad.

Progress has been slow, though there are now genuine signs of improvement, but Cameron and Osborne’s message this week – the sunlit lands are visible, if not yet reached – carries risks.

The current momentum visible in housing, job numbers and manufacturing has yet to be felt in people’s pockets. Until it does, Cameron faces an uphill task.

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