3 June 2017

What has happened to the Conservative campaign?


Politicians don’t like to be seen to take anything for granted. But when Theresa May decided to call a snap election, she would have looked at the polls, which at the time gave the Conservatives a 20-point lead, and at the very least assumed that dozens of seats with a small Labour majority were in the bag.

That assumption is starting to look a little careless. YouGov research published this week projected a hung Parliament, an outcome that would have been almost unthinkable six weeks ago. A poll by the same firm for The Times yesterday put the Conservative lead at just 3 per cent. Even though these surveys come with significant health warnings, they’ve got the Tories worried.

How worried? Wirral West – with the fifth smallest Labour majority in the country – is exactly the sort of constituency May and her advisers assumed would be in the bag by now. Labour’s Margaret Greenwood is defending a majority of just 412. But according to YouGov’s new seat predictor, Wirral West is now too close to call.

You don’t have to take YouGov’s word for it. I had arranged to visit the constituency to report on one of the biggest challenges facing the country – the NHS. Greenwood was a strong “anti-privatisation” campaigner on the NHS before winning her seat off Esther McVey two years ago, and in Parliament, she has been a particularly vocal critic of the Conservatives’ stewardship of the health service. Her seat has also the second highest proportion of public sector workers in the country – a large number of them hospital workers.

Yet I arrived in Wirral West to find I was not the only out-of-towner. Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, was touring the constituency to lend heavyweight support to the Conservative candidate, Tony Caldeira – in a race that has gone from foregone conclusion to a damn close-run thing.

Caldeira is, in many respects, a dream candidate for the Conservatives in Wirral West. A Liverpudlian entrepreneur who went from selling cushions on a market stall at the age of 15 to running a successful business that manufactures them, his passion for building a “country where you can get on in life and it doesn’t matter where you’re from” has an authentic ring to it. He was also the Conservative candidate for Liverpool in the recent metro mayor election. Clark describes his 20-per-cent vote share as an “incredible achievement” – a mark of how hostile to the Conservatives Liverpool as a whole still is.

Wirral West, however, is different – as witnessed by the success of Esther McVey in 2010. If you could transplant it to almost any other part of England, it would be solidly Tory. It is the leafy, semi-rural home to Liverpudlians who’ve done well for themselves: well-off, older than average, and overwhelmingly white.

But this is Merseyside, where there are now no Conservative-held seats and where, for a great many people, the word “Tory” is rarely used without the suffix “scum”.

Clark and Caldeira manage to avoid such hostility when they visit shops in West Kirby, one of the constituency’s main hubs. In fact, the response is overwhelmingly welcoming. The owner of a wine shop explains why a ban on zero-hours contracts would make life difficult for him; a lettings agent argues that tenants’ fees shouldn’t be abolished; another shop owner complains about the business rates appeal process.

Clark conducts himself as the experienced politician he is, listening to West Kirby’s small business owners and voters, appearing to take their concerns seriously, and taking every opportunity to impress on people the importance of a Conservative vote on June 8.

One elderly voter tells Caldeira she wants to vote for him, but is worried he is getting into politics for the wrong reasons: that he is on the make “just like the rest of them”. Deploying the charm of a someone who started his career on a market stall, he seems to persuade her otherwise.

Clark is effusive about Caldeira, whom he describes as an “old friend” and respects for doggedly flying the Conservative flag in and around Liverpool rather than heading to more amenable parts of the country. “Tony will make a fantastic representative for Wirral West,” he says.

Once Clark has chatted cheerily to activists and voters, and posed for the requisite photographs, he is whisked off to the next marginal. The big beast is needed elsewhere.

Talking to the Conservative campaigners here, it is immediately apparent that they are a lot more confident than YouGov. They have victory in their sights – encouraged by the knowledge that, unlike in 2015, the Greens have fielded a candidate. He may only take a small number of votes from Greenwood, but that could make all the difference in such a marginal seat.

The campaign team also feels that Caldeira has navigated the local issues effectively – from grammar schools (popular) to fracking (unpopular). But that is not to say they aren’t frustrated. On the doorstep, on the high street and on social media, they say they find themselves paying the price for the national campaign’s unforced errors.

In somewhere as tribally Labour as Merseyside, Theresa May’s announcement that there would be a free vote on fox hunting reinforced the stereotype of heartless and out-of-touch Tories. Ironically, it is exactly the sort of announcement May warned against all those years ago when she scolded her own side for playing into the hands of those keen to brand the Conservatives “the nasty party”: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies.”

The so-called “dementia tax” is also being raised on the doorsteps. The issue has been a double whammy for the Conservative campaign. Many traditional Tory voters were opposed to the policy; but the abrupt U-turn then undermined the core strong-and-stable message of the campaign.

If the grumbling in Wirral has a common characteristic, it is about a lack of discipline and focus. Perhaps the single most important explanation for the Conservatives’ ballot box success in recent years is encapsulated by Lynton Crosby’s order to David Cameron: “Get the barnacles off the boat”. To win, Tories must ignore peripheral issues and relentlessly ram home their core argument. Hence the “long-term economic plan” in 2015 and “strong and stable leadership” this time around.

Wirral West should be fertile soil for that kind of core message, focusing on Jeremy Corbyn’s ineptitude. Greenwood comes from the Corbyn/McDonnell wing of the Labour Party, has the enthusiastic support of the local branch of Momentum and isn’t shy about her support for the party leader. That was doubtless part of the reason her constituency was chosen for one of the public rallies that have been a key feature of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign.

The question, of course, is whether the enthusiasm at rallies such as the one at West Kirby beach, will translate into votes for Corbyn’s party. In that sense, the scrap in Wirral West is the national race in microcosm. It is a contest that has gone from seeming straightforward to one in which the Conservative Party is jittery, but nonetheless thinks it will get over the line on June 8.

The hope of the activists in Wirral West, and the generals back in London, is that the masses assembled on West Kirby beach are outnumbered by voters sitting at home quietly appalled by Corbyn’s politics. And that the hard Left has yet again fallen into the trap of thinking that well-attended public meetings is a good predictor ballot-box success.

But as the polls narrow, there are few at either local or national level who are quite as confident about that as they once were.

Oliver Wiseman is Deputy Editor of CapX