Tuesday, 22 April 2008

The Tory election tactic - see a problem, squash it

I don't think the Tory high command will have any problem with the defection of Bob Spink to UKIP. On a practical level, UKIP will garner a few decent press mentions over the course of the next week but Spink has lost any claim to the moral high ground in his row with his local Conservative Association and, what is more, UKIP seem totally incapable of coherent organisation to make the most of the opportunity that has presented itself.

(Why is that? UKIP have a lot of money and enough elected politicians to be able to build a significant movement. Yet they haven't. I know that voters only really turn to them during Euro elections but the party really ought to have done better in building a movement and spreading their electoral appeal. Yet at every chance they seem to blow it. I remember during the Bromley by-election all the UKIP MEPs and workers just hung out at a pub getting steadily more wasted. A number of us Lib Dem staffers even joked that we ought to take their money and organise a half decent campaign on their behalf. Note: JOKED)

But Cameron is not concerned. He has learned from Blair and the New Labour machine of 1995-97. In order to win, discipline is key. Any sign of dissent (or, dare I say it, character) must be ruthlessley squashed or otherwise disposed of.

Naturally, the party does not want to lose support or MPs. But sometimes the cost of maintaining the current standing is just too high a price to be paid. And so if you are going to cause a stink in public - Bob Spink - you are ushered out. If you have the taint of something dodgy - Derek Conway - then you are kicked out. If you want to go and join the sinking New Labour ship - Quentin Davies - then please close the door on your way out. After all, it doesn't matter in Parliamentary terms. No one is really going to notice that the Tories are light a few MPs. All except Davies will probably continue to vote the right way when push comes to shove and very few commentators will spot this strategy as really being to blame if the Government hangs on over the 10p rate by just a couple of votes.

Not everyone is being quietly disposed of. Who reading this is surprised that Boris has not gaffed in his London campaign? I'm not. It was quite clear from the moment that he was picked that Central Office would sit on him to make sure that he didn't damage the brand with his loveable oafery. If he didn't make an impact on Ken then so be it. But the last thing that could be allowed was the implication that the Conservatives were not fit for purpose.

Now that Boris is seen as a likely (or at least possible) winner, then the stakes are raised higher. Protect the image at all costs. And this tactic will continue after May 1st. If Boris thinks that all those heavies and minders will leave him alone to govern as Mayor then forget it. For at least the first two years he won't be allowed to squeak without permission from Dave or George.

And that is why I wholeheartedly disagree with Jeremy Hargreaves who suggested that Boris as Mayor would prove to the country that the Conservatives are unfit to govern. It won't. We will simply have a crowd pleasing absence of Government for two years.

(As an aside, look at how Labour treated Livingstone. They were happy to seek him sod off and run as an independent in 2000 when the Party had a commanding lead in the polls. Better out than in, as they say. But as soon as Blair's popularity started waning, they needed all hands on deck. No matter that they were smeared with Father Christmas's blood.)

So what does this mean for the Lib Dems? In order to damage Cameron seriously we have to hit them in the ballot box. All eyes will be on Crewe which will be touted by the media as Dave's big test. The Lib Dems must prove that (even if we don't win) we are taking more votes off Labour than the Conservatives do. If we have a by-election in Henley then we must show Team Tory that they are not going to have it their own way. We must significantly erode any majority they have (both on terms of share and actual votes).

And first of all, on May 1st, we must prove that the Tories have no hope of power by continuing to be the only alternative to Labour in the cities and the North.

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