If anyone arrived yesterday morning for ConservativeHome’s “Victory 2015” conference hoping to be told that the path to Tory success at the next general election is straightforward, they will have gone away disappointed last night.
If, however, they arrived hoping for an intelligent and constructive insight into the scale of the challenges that lie ahead and how we, as Tories, might address some of our current failings, then the chances are they left buoyed by the day’s proceedings.
In recent years, the ConservativeHome website has won a reputation for delivering exclusive revelations and unpalatable truths to the party faithful – and the sell-out conference that it hosted yesterday in Westminster was no exception.
The delegates had barely had time to get comfortable in their seats before I was giving them the results of my latest polling which took place in the marginal seats ie those that will decide the outcome of the next general election.
The results were not for the faint of heart: polling indicated that the Conservatives would lose no less that 93 seats to Labour in an election tomorrow, suggesting an 8 per cent swing to Labour in the Tories’ most vulnerable seats.
There were, however, at least some crumbs of comfort to be found in the detailed results of my polling that was based on interviews with more than 19,000 voters in 213 constituencies.
To start with, the 8 per cent swing to Labour is, in fact, lower that the national swing suggested by headline voting intention polls – partly because Labour is finding it hard to break through in Conservative seats in London and parts of the South.
Furthermore, of the Liberal Democrat seats in England and Wales, Nick Clegg would lose 17 to the Conservatives and 13 to Labour – including two where Labour finished third – in an election tomorrow.
In my address to the conference, I stressed that the poll represented a snapshot not a prediction, adding: “I don’t want to see a Labour majority of 4, let alone 84. But I hope this puts the challenge into some sort of perspective. We have a long way to go to hold onto the seats we gained last time, let alone pick up many more. But things are slightly less grim than the headline polls suggest, and we have everything to play for.” Indeed, this was a recurring theme of yesterday: there really still is everything to play for over the next two years.
I also addressed the party’s ambitious (over-ambitious?) “40-40” targeting strategy: to defend its most marginal 40 seats and to attack Labour’s 40 most vulnerable seats. “The Tory marginal seats strategy looks like the equivalent of planning the final assault on Berlin, while we were evacuating the beaches at Dunkirk,” I warned.
Incidentally, I began yesterday by addressing some recent press reports that I had withdrawn my financial support for the Conservative Party cause.
I made it clear that I would not be contributing to a conference on how Conservatives could win the next election if I no longer supported the party. I have decided, however, that for this Parliament I would prefer to spend my money on political research (rather than donating to the party).
These are difficult times for us in the wake of the bitterly disappointing Eastleigh by-election result. The Times yesterday carried a front-page lead story, based on a poll conducted by ConservativeHome, headlined: “Tory voters fear next election is already lost.” The poll showed that just 7 per cent of Tories believe David Cameron will win an overall majority at the next election.
The Conservative Party has not won a majority at a general election since 1992. Bookmakers are not renowned for giving their money away and the fact that they now offer odds of 9-2 for a Conservative majority at the next election also indicates the daunting size of the task that lies ahead.
Yesterday’s events commenced at 10.30 am with Nadhim Zahawi, the Conservative MP and the conference chairman, welcoming delegates to the event, which was sub-titled: “For Britain, For Her People.”
Tim Montgomerie, the editor of ConservativeHome, then outlined the aims of the day. He detailed how a main theme of the conference would be an argument that the party needs to rediscover its one-nation character: to build its Conservatism around the core values associated with jobs, family and education.
During the morning session, there were valuable contributions from three other speakers discussing the three “Ms”: message, machine and manifesto. Stephan Shakespeare, of YouGov and ConservativeHome, set out his vision for a one-nation Conservative message. “It’s not about left v right; Conservatives have to learn to wrap their issues in emotional warmth,’” he said.
Matthew Elliott, of the TaxPayers’ Alliance and the No2AV campaign, set out his thinking on the kind of machine that political parties need to win elections in the modern age. He said that with the decline of mass membership parties, Conservatives needed to engage with “third party groups” to build up their party machine.
Jesse Norman, the Conservative MP, presented changes that the next Tory manifesto must address. He said the key ingredients for the 2015 manifesto were to avoid “IOU politics” (cheap promises), to have honesty with optimism, and to have a short, clear, engaging and long-term message.
After lunch, Grant Shapps, the Conservative Party chairman, gave a short talk on “The Electoral Battleground”, but offered little in the way of detail on the party’s target seats’ campaign.
The party chairman was dismissive of excessive “strategising”, saying electoral victory was more likely to be achieved through “actions” (such as knocking on doors in the constituencies) and proving to the electorate that the party deserves their support.
However, he was given an occasionally spiky reception from delegates who criticised everything from the party’s out-of-date online campaigning to its use of “cold and unfriendly” language (suggesting “positive and warm” language would better serve the cause).
Next, five panellists each gave a three-minute presentation, followed by a Q&A session, into how the Tories can win in 2015. Liz Truss MP, Martin Callanan MEP and senior journalists Anne McElvoy, Fraser Nelson and Steve Richards prompted a lively debate from the floor on the direction the party needs to take in future.
Fraser Nelson got a loud laugh from delegates when he described me, through my polling, as “a ghost of Christmas future” warning “Scrooge Cameron” what will happen if he does not change his ways!
Delegates were then given the opportunity to attend two out of four workshops, each lasting for 45 minutes.
The keynote address was made by Theresa May, who was in fine fighting form. This is the first time since the Home Secretary was party chairman that she has set out her vision for the future.
Theresa May delivered a passionate insight into her three main pillars of Conservatism: security, freedom and opportunity. And she ended her address with a rallying call to the party faithful: “We will change the country for the better. And we will win the next general election.”
The last major event on the “menu” for delegates involved the publication of ten policy ideas that Tory Party members think are needed to win the next election. Yet again, there was no shortage of innovative suggestions from the floor.
I found yesterday’s conference productive, stimulating and worthwhile, and I thank everyone who contributed towards it being such a success. The event did not tell delegates what they wanted to hear. Instead, it told them what they needed to hear.