Magazine article The Spectator

The Tory Situation Is Now Verging on Critical

Magazine article The Spectator

The Tory Situation Is Now Verging on Critical

Article excerpt

Why has the Tory lead halved since December? James Forsyth says that Cameron and his four top men - Osborne, Hilton, Coulson and Bridges - must take the blame for the party's dismal performance and its lack of message and purpose

One evening earlier this week a group of senior Tories gathered for a secret meeting in a house in Notting Hill. All of the most trusted members of Cameron's inner circle were there - George Osborne, Steve Hilton, Andy Coulson, Michael Gove - but the atmosphere was not one of jubilation, or even excited determination. The predominant mood was despair. Osborne put their worries into words: What's going wrong? he asked. Why are we slipping in the polls, even when Brown is so unpopular?

But though all the Cameroon brains were present in the same room, and considering that everyone there had helped craft the campaign and most considered themselves experts in the dark art of political strategy, no one had an answer. Osborne, who likes to see himself as Brown's great nemesis, ended the meeting as frustrated as he began it.

It is as clear to the country as it is to the top Tories that the Conservative election campaign is in trouble; that the party seems to be stagnating. One aide puts it like this:

'A shark has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we've got on our hands is a dead shark.' A senior Tory MP is blunter still: 'There is a real danger that we might not win this.' To win, of course, means securing a majority, and an increasing number of Tories believe they aren't going to get one.

These fears are justified: the situation really is verging on critical. Even after the bullying story came out, YouGov was still only showing a six-point Tory lead - which on a uniform swing would mean the party winning just 17 more seats than Labour.

Even factoring in Conservative advantage in the marginal seats (assiduously cultivated for years by Lord Ashcroft) the current polls suggest it is touch and go whether the Tories get a majority. When you consider that they're fighting against a party whose agenda has bankrupted the country, led by a Prime Minister who is loathed even by his own aides, this seems incomprehensible.

Since the beginning of the year, when David Cameron declared the start of his long campaign, the Tory machine has spluttered, while Labour's has revved up. The Tories have lost momentum and made unforced errors. Labour morale has not been so high for years.

Tory MPs are torn between schadenfreude and panic. They have been largely ignored by the leadership for the past four years and they complain that if only Cameron had listened they could have alerted him to some of these weaknesses before they became so damaging. The shadow Cabinet - which has been bypassed for most of Cameron's tenure - is now being consulted. It met for more than two hours on Tuesday - after the Cameroon powwow in Notting Hill - and had, unusually, a proper discussion of the political situation. One member tells me that almost everyone spoke at the meeting. That this is considered news says a lot about how the shadow Cabinet is normally conducted.

Why has the Tory lead halved since December? It is nothing to do with Mr Brown's much-derided interview with Piers Morgan. The Tories conducted focus groups afterwards which suggested that the whole wretched affair had simply hardened the hostility towards the Prime Minister. It is also nothing to do with the economy, which is still weak. (Senior members of the Tory economic team are now openly speculating that the next set of growth figures will show that the recovery has ended. ) Rather, it is to do with the campaign. The Labour message is clear and repeated while the Tory one is opaque.

One shadow Cabinet member told me this week that he wished the Tories had a slogan as effective as Labour's 'a future fair for all'.

Candidates report that voters can remember Labour policies but not Tory ones. …

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