In his speech to the Conservative party conference this autumn, the Prime Minister said that it only takes two words to make him smile these days. Those words are “exit poll”.
The numbers broadcast by the BBC as the polls closed at 10 o’clock on election night last May put the Conservatives close to a majority, and dumbfounded practically everyone in a country that had spent the preceding months in increasingly tedious conversations about hung parliaments, who would do deals with whom, and exactly how many rings Nicola Sturgeon would run around Ed Miliband. Everyone had expected days, if not weeks, of coalition negotiations to follow the results. When that exit poll was published, and when, a few hours later, some crucial seats actually swung towards the Conservatives, those tiresome conversations quickly faded into irrelevance.
We were all surprised. All of us, that is, except for the team at the centre of the Conservative election machine, run by Lynton Crosby, the “Wizard of Oz” with a reputation as a conniving and thuggish right-winger. In Why the Tories Won, Sunday Telegraph journalist Tim Ross reveals that Crosby had been running surveys in 60 seats since December, polling voters every day for the final month of the campaign. That secret data consistently put the Conservatives as the biggest party and the party’s internal final forecast, 329 seats, was just two short of the party’s eventual tally. (Isn’t it funny how private polls are always right while public polls, in which we can see the numbers for ourselves before the final result, are sometimes wrong?)
Notwithstanding score-settling memoirs written by once-senior politicians with time on their hands after an election loss — coming soon: Nick Clegg’s memoirs — political history is written by the winners.
Why the Tories Won paints a clear picture of that win. In the blue corner, the Conservatives. Led by Crosby who, according to Ross, was calling the shots to a greater extent even than David Cameron, they were a disciplined, hard-working team. In the red corner, Labour were less focused, less honest about their shortcomings and less driven. Crosby would chair the Conservatives’ first meeting of the day at No 4 Matthew Parker Street at 5.45 am. The Labour team would not meet until 7.45 am; Miliband was not much of a morning person. While Labour boasted about having “four million conversations” with voters, many of those were in safe seats. By contrast, Conservative ground troops were better targeted and, thanks to American election guru Jim Messina, the message was highly tailored to different audiences.
Ross paints a rehabilitating portrait of Crosby, who has found himself with a reputation as a master of the dark arts. Good work at CCHQ would be rewarded with cuddly toy koalas or kangaroos tossed across the office. Without warning, Crosby would blast Queen’s “One Vision” — his unofficial campaign song — from his computer’s speakers to raise morale.
“One vision” sums up his admirably simple approach to the election. As Crosby reportedly told Tory MPs in preparation for the election, they could not afford any “barnacles” on the boat. Issues that had divided the party or were just distractions needed to be ignored. What mattered was competence, something the electorate on the whole thought Cameron had and Miliband didn’t. Hence that four-word cure for insomniacs: “Long Term Economic Plan”.
Not only did Crosby have a plan, he was given the authority to execute it. He would chair meetings, whether or not the Prime Minister was in the room. One story told by Ross demonstrates just how tight his grip on the reins was. A few weeks before the election, his team were shocked to find that a Cornish newspaper had details of a tour of the county Cameron was about to make. As one Tory insider interviewed by Ross put it, this news “sent the internal team into meltdown, saying ‘Who briefed this? Why are we briefing this?’” A hunt for the leaker was under way before it emerged that the unhelpful blabbermouth was the Prime Minister himself, who had mentioned his trip at a Downing Street drinks party for local activists. According to the insider, this was common: “Whenever there were leak enquiries in No 10 they would almost always find that the culprit was him.”
Ross also reveals the inner workings of the Labour campaign. At some length he explains what was wrong with Miliband and his team. He could, however, have made his point in a single sentence: they thought the “Ed Stone” was a good idea.
A general election — with its twists and turns, its human drama and its conclusive end — should offer plenty to an author. But not so this year’s poll. Reading Why the Tories Won, one feels a certain sympathy for the author, who has the challenge of telling a story with an ending we all know and a beginning and middle in which the key protagonists were having a largely pointless conversation detached from what, with hindsight, we can see was important. The short campaign was a stagnant play-it-safe series of heavily-staged stump speeches and watered-down debates, largely free from major controversy. Hence Ross’s focus on the mechanisms of the Tory campaign. His book sheds light on a secretive but effective operation and leaves readers with a sense more of how the Tories won, not why, as his title promises.
Pay Me Forty Quid and I’ll Tell You is a short write-up, by Lord Ashcroft (a major shareholder in Biteback, the book’s publisher) and Kevin Culwick, of the results of the focus groups conducted by Ashcroft’s polling organisation in the run-up to the election.
Above all else, it is a reminder to Westminster insiders (the market for this book cannot stretch far beyond SW1) of how little attention so many people pay to politics. A voter in Pudsey, West Yorkshire, is asked whether he’d received any election literature. “I’ve got all the leaflets in a big pile,” he says. “I’m saving them for when I have a real fireplace.” Other voters are ruthless pedants: “I got a letter from the Lib Dems but there was a terrible typo in the main headline so I didn’t look at the rest of it.”
But between platitudes about politicians not being like us, Nigel Farage seeming like an OK bloke and Ed Miliband being a geek, come insights into what really won it for the Tories. Fiscal responsibility is something voters really care about. The threat of Miliband relying on SNP votes to form a government appears to be one of the few things that got through to English voters. Here the erroneous polls were a great help to the Conservatives, who were able to squeeze voters thinking about voting for UKIP or the Liberal Democrats, sharpening the contrast between Miliband and Cameron as prospective prime ministers.
Books about election campaigns are, I suppose, necessarily narrow. Perhaps they are bound to leave a distorted impression of events, one that emphasises the tactical decisions made by strategists — targeting this seat not that one, talking about x, not talking about y — and downplaying the records of the candidates themselves. One explanation for “why the Tories won” has nothing to do with pollsters and focus groups. It is much simpler: they deserved to. British voters felt the country was competently run for the last five years not because of a party political broadcast but because it was competently run. Campaigning matters, but the seeds for the Conservatives’ victory were sown years, not months, before May 7, 2015.