With 10 days to go before polling, Conservatives have two very different views of the state of David Cameron’s re-election campaign.
Inside Britain’s traditionally pro-Tory business establishment, the mood is jittery.
As they face the possibility of Ed Miliband becoming prime minister, senior business leaders fret that it was a mistake by Mr Cameron to adopt a more negative tone.
They argue that he has failed to trumpet the successes of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition: the creation of about 2m new jobs and the strongest economic recovery in western Europe.
Allies of Lynton Crosby, the hard-nosed Australian election strategist running the Tory campaign, dismiss such critiques.
They are adamant that his tactics will prevail on May 7, noting that armchair critics do not have access to his spreadsheets and polling intelligence in marginal seats.
The Conservative campaign is targeting middle Britain and voters who earn £28,000-£35,000. The essence of this ground campaign is to combine fear of change — and the prospect of a Labour government held hostage by the Scottish Nationalist party — with inducements such as giving housing association tenants the right to buy their homes at a discount.
This week, amid some signs of restiveness, the Tories wheeled out former prime minister Sir John Major, who secured an election victory against widespread expectations in 1992.
Sir John, who rarely intervenes in politics, sought to calm nerves. “In 40 years of politics, I can’t recall a campaign people thought was going well until after it had been won,” he said.
Business leaders have been unnerved by a flurry of promises on the campaign trail from both parties. They say that by throwing out unfunded spending pledges, the Conservatives undermined their fiscal credibility, while underestimating the resilience of Labour leader Mr Miliband.
The frustration with the Tories’ failure to move ahead in the polls comes against a backdrop of anxiety that a Labour administration would represent a sharp shift to the left towards “wealth distribution rather than wealth creation”.
The second charge against the Tory campaign is that it spent too much time on personal attacks against Ed Miliband.
“We wasted the first week and more. The attacks have been totally counter-productive,” one business leader said.
Conservative officials say it is Mr Miliband who has “scaremongered” with warnings about a Tory threat to the NHS, while Mr Cameron has made a positive case on jobs, childcare, schools, apprenticeships and other policies.
The national polls suggest that the Tory campaign has been neither a brilliant success nor a disaster: it seems to have made little difference.
But this may not tell the full story of the ground campaign, where the Conservatives have poured thousands of pounds into leaflets with targeted messages, which highlight the recovery.
Pollsters Populus found that Mr Cameron’s personal lead over Mr Miliband is eight percentage points — the same as it was on March 23, three days before the two leaders were interviewed by Jeremy Paxman. Labour’s Populus lead over the Tories is also the same, at two points: other polls put the parties neck-and-neck.
Some senior Tories admit that whatever they do in the campaign, the party’s “brand” is fixed in the mind of voters. “We struggle with the brand,” a minister said.
“We have announced policies that are massively positive for working people, like extending childcare and the right to buy, but it gets discounted as a gimmick. People see us as competent but they feel our hearts aren’t in it.”
Some party figures believe that Mr Cameron made a strategic error in January when he failed to identify the NHS and immigration as key campaign themes. Mr Crosby believes the party should not focus on its weak points.
One senior Conservative said: “How can you not talk about the number one issue affecting voters? There was a panic and the party then reversed that decision and announced extra funding. By the time they did it, it sounded insincere.”
But many Conservatives remain convinced that there will be a tipping point and that Mr Crosby’s campaign — particularly his relentless focus on the idea of Mr Miliband being held “hostage” by the SNP — will deliver. A YouGov poll on Wednesday found that 35 per cent of UK Independence party supporters would prefer a Tory government to a Labour administration propped up by the SNP.
Mr Crosby, with his information about swing voters in marginal seats, is honing a strategy aimed at convincing such voters to switch their support to the Conservatives.
Despite stagnant polls, most Tories retain faith in the Australian campaign chief and believe his judgment will be vindicated on polling day.
If the Conservatives win enough seats to secure a second term, Mr Crosby and the people who put their political fates in his hands — Mr Cameron and George Osborne — will be vindicated for their tightly controlled campaign. If they lose, the blame will fly and not just in the boardrooms.
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