Here are two standard polling questions. “Which party has the best policies for the country?” “Which party has the best policies for you and your family?”
The Conservatives have produced a manifesto for the country. As we put it the day after the document’s release, it is “a real attempt to address directly some of the great issues of our time: an ageing population, high immigration, job insecurity, disillusion with our political system”. It seeks to tackle inter-generational injustice, provide more homes, boost the status of technical education, restore the integrity of the honours system. And it is solid on Brexit – the reason why May called this election in the first place, and a dog that has scarcely barked during this election campaign. Her aim is to gain a bigger majority that will enable her to govern more effectively.
Labour has produced a manifesto for you and your family – or, rather, for its core supporters and their families. Its tax, nationalise and spend approach – plus its shakiness on defence, immigration and Brexit – will not persuade most voters to back Jeremy Corbyn. But that is not the manifesto’s objective. Its purpose, rather, is to shore up his position as Labour’s leader, so that he, and the Left with him, carry on controlling the party after June 8. Hence the manifesto’s economic offer to younger and to poorer voters: a minimum wage of at least £10 an hour by 2020, the scrapping of tuition fees, the end of the one per cent cap on public sector pay. That last pledge keeps coming up in Lord Ashcroft’s focus groups.
In short, the Labour manifesto had a retail offer to voters. The Tory manifesto did not. Indeed, in so far as it had one at all, it was to take money away from them rather than give it to them. We refer to the social care proposals. Retail offers can be very effective – a point proven only last summer. £350 million a week for the NHS!
This difference helps to explain the course of this election campaign so far, at least if the opinion polls are anything to go by (which of course they may not be).
The high point of the Conservative campaign to date came the best part of a month ago – after May’s roasting of Jean-Claude Juncker, Angela Merkel and Martin Selmayr for interfering in the election, following the leaked Downing Street dinner with the first. Tory poll ratings soared.
The low point of the Conservative campaign so far followed the manifesto launch. The social care policy tanked, and Tory poll ratings fell with it. The Prime Minister responded with a U-turn which, while necessary, undermined her key election message: “strong and stable leadership”. The winter fuel payment policy is also not playing out well. One poll today finds women voters switching in droves.
So what is to be done?
The beginning of an answer is to grasp that while the polling gap has narrowed, it is still wide. The average Conservative lead this morning, after four polls overnight, is ten points. David Cameron would have killed for that.
In any event, changing course during an election campaign almost always does more harm than good. May could tear up her serious approach to the election – one backed, on the abandonment of the tax pledge and the pensions pledge, by ConservativeHome readers – and make a panic promise of tax cuts that her manifesto does not contain, and that the country cannot afford. This would pulverise what remains of the “strong and stable” meme and replace it with the “weak and wobbly” one. CCHQ is having a go at a positive push on Twitter and social media, stessing more NHS spending, more school funding, more affordable housing and the energy price cap. This is as close to a retail offer as the Prime Minister is going to get.
CCHQ’s response to the smaller poll gap between the two parties has been to go after Corbyn over defence and security – Trident, Islamist terror and (especially) the IRA. His eccentric decision to make a major security speech on Friday has enabled Crosby and company to double down on these issues. This is all well and good. We now read that they intend to get the Tory campaign back to where it started: who do you trust to conduct the Brexit negotiation that begins only eleven days after June 8? This also makes sense, particularly given the shift in May’s messaging. “Strong and stable” is being played down in favour of a new mantra: “Me or Corbyn”.
The missing element takes us back to where we started. It should be a message for “you and your family” to accompany the one to the country. It should complement what there is of a Conservative retail offer with an attack on Corbyn’s. In the remaining week and a bit, the Prime Minister should seek to persuade uncommitted voters not just that the Labour leader will car-crash the economy, which is everyone’s property, but that he will plunder your own purse, wallet and savings while he does so. If there really are wavering women voters out there in large numbers, this is surely what they need to hear.