It was the last of the Conservatives’ dismal trilogy of election defeats between 1997 and 2005 that really marked David Cameron and George Osborne. As nascent forces in the party, they saw the Labour government’s vote sink by 6 percentage points while theirs rose by barely one. A country ravenous for change found nothing appetising about the alternative. The sulphurous misanthropy of the Tory campaign, which conjured a Britain of violent criminals and grasping immigrants, hardly salvaged a moral victory either.
Yet the prime minister and the chancellor have summoned the choreographer of that campaign for the next general election in 2015. Lynton Crosby is a globe-trotting political strategist who made his reputation winning elections for John Howard, the former Australian prime minister who remains the west’s most successful conservative since the Reagan-Thatcher era. Mr Crosby begins work on the Tories’ next election campaign in the new year, more than two years before polling day. The earliness of his arrival, and the purportedly generous purse that lured him, are proof of the Conservatives’ restless determination to redeem themselves after the botched campaign of 2010.
His appointment is also being written up by many as a resort to unreconstructed right-wingery by desperate men who have given up “modernising” their party. Some of these critics are modernisers themselves. Mr Crosby is a thoroughgoing conservative and, unlike most Tories, it is possible to imagine him being at home in the US Republican party. But the fears are misplaced. He will frame, but does not choose, the substance of the party’s offer to the electorate. That is for politicians to decide. As author of the 2005 manifesto, which promised a cap not only on immigration but also on asylum, Mr Cameron carries more blame for the harshness of the Tory message back then than the Australian. Mr Crosby has been flexible enough to run two winning campaigns for London mayor Boris Johnson, a pro-immigrant politician in the world’s ultimate cosmopolis.
However, there is more to the misunderstanding of Mr Crosby than this. Large parts of elite opinion have simply lost sight of where the centre ground actually is. On issues such as crime, immigration, welfare and Europe, government policies routinely described as “rightwing” are, on a spectrum of public opinion, to the left of centre. According to Downing Street’s regular focus groups, and intensive research done earlier this year by the Policy Exchange think-tank, the electorate craves a more equitable kind of austerity and is undemonstratively liberal on matters of race and sexuality. It is also eye-wateringly tough on criminals, dependency culture and the EU, however. What is more, the salience of those issues to voters has risen over the past decade.
The original sin of Tory modernisers was to sometimes assume that ordinary swing voters in swing seats disliked their party for the same reasons that metropolitan sophisticates did. The former did not trust the Conservatives to protect public services or look out for middle-earners ahead of the rich; the latter, many of whom barely use public services, found the Tories culturally distasteful. The former were up for grabs; the latter will never vote Tory. Mr Crosby will probably close the book on the party’s futile and faltering quest to be loved by the bien pensants.
But even this does not go to the core of his potential value to the Tories, which has nothing to do with ideas. Mr Crosby is, above all, a political professional. Veterans of the 2005 campaign regard its sheer efficiency as a consolation for defeat. He is a deft manager of people, decisive under pressure, impossible to distract from his strategic goals and naturally authoritative. In short, he is good at everything the Conservatives are not. Under Mr Cameron, the Tory operation has come to resemble a fusty City bank before the “Big Bang”: civilised and well-intentioned but lacking in aggression, discipline and organisation. It is neither very political nor especially professional, at least compared with the New Labour machines run by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. And this affects not only electoral matters but also the running of the country. When haggling over policy with the prime minister, civil servants do not have to try very hard to prevail. Sometimes rewording a submission he has already rejected is enough. The man who sparkled as a special adviser in his twenties does not have enough of the vigilant political counsel around him that he once provided to others.
Of course, Mr Crosby cannot solve all of this. He will, at least initially, have little involvement with the governing side of things. But the instalment of such a formidable, demanding and sharp-tongued presence could change the culture at the top of the Tory party as well as improving its prospects of winning in 2015. The Conservatives are conventionally seen as clever political tacticians with no ideological core. In fact, the opposite is true: they are rather daring in policy but not very good at politics. The “wizard of Oz” might help them fix their weakness without losing their strength.
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