Selling baked beans – why David Cameron failed

Why didn’t Cameron win an outright election victory over Labour earlier this year? Peter Oborne finds Lord Ashcroft’s view that ‘negative campaigning’ and an emphasis on immigration wouldn’t work more compelling than the traditional argument from Conservative Home

Falling Short: The Key Factors That Contributed To The Conservative Party’s Failure To Win a Parliamentary Majority, Tim Montgomerie.

Minority Verdict: The Conservative Party,The Voters and the 2010 Election, Michael Ashcroft, Biteback Publishing, £10

There are two basic views within the Conservative Party about the result of the general election of 2010. One maintains that the Conservatives failed to win because they did not articulate strongly their traditional themes of cutting tax and slowing immigration. This school of thought also holds that David Cameron should have ruthlessly destroyed Gordon Brown’s personal character, just as Tony Blair did to John Major before 1997.

Then there is the alternative view which says that, on the contrary, the Conservatives lost because they were too traditional and had not changed enough.

The two pamphlets under review reflect these two positions. The first, Falling Short, is written by Tim Montgomerie, director and founder of the Conservative Home website.  Montgomerie is an influential figure inside the modern Conservative Party because his website articulates the hopes, fears and resentments of party activists. Furthermore Montgomerie has had the sense to maintain an element of independence from Conservative high command. He therefore has a plausible claim to be the nearest thing we have to the voice of grass roots.

His pamphlet articulates their point of view. Montgomerie believes that the 2010 General Election “was the Conservative Party’s best opportunity for victory in a generation.” The prospect was thrown away thanks to a largely botched election campaign.

He thinks that the mistakes were: agreeing to debates which threw a lifeline to the Liberal Democrats; failure to produce a clear message; inability to explain the Big Society; nothing to say on the economy; loss of identity and authenticity thanks by ‘modernisation.’

Montgomerie’s pamphlet is unambiguous: “Immigration was never given a day in the party’s election grid. A day was found, however, for a schools’ music competition.” Montgomerie compares this Tory silence on immigration to Manchester United leaving Wayne Rooney on the substitute’s bench.

However Montgomerie’s analysis is challenged, analysed and then dismantled by Michael Ashcroft’s rival volume, Minority Verdict.  Lord Ashcroft’s long pamphlet is well-written, intelligent and extremely well researched. Indeed it is an essential read for anyone wishing to understand last May’s result or the electoral fortunes of the Conservative Party over the past decade.

Ashcroft, who has been closely involved in Conservative election strategy for the last five years, takes a much more dispassionate line than Montgomerie. He coldly asks: what did the Tories need to do to win? His answer is based not on political instinct but on voluminous polling and rigorous analysis. He agrees with Montgomerie on only two substantive points: the Big Society theme did not work and the Conservatives could have won the last election, but threw it away.

“It is important not to draw the wrong conclusions,” writes Ashcroft as he warms up for a broadside attack on Montgomerie. “One theory is that we did not achieve a majority because we failed to nail Labour on their record, wrongly chose not to highlight immigration, and talked too much about ourselves. It would be a disaster if this theory were to become the orthodoxy because it is wrong in every particular.”

In a compelling section that should be read by political scientists, with plenty of examples from the campaign itself, Ashcroft demolishes the case for negative campaigning. “Every minute we spent telling voters (to no effect) why they should blame Mr Brown was a minute we could have spent explaining why they trust us.” Ashcroft argues that the Tory insistence on attacking Labour was “perhaps the main reason why we had not reassured enough people by election day that the Conservative Party had changed.”

Ashcroft makes a related case on immigration: “Consistently we found that voters were more likely to say that immigration was important to us than they were to say it was important to them.” At the heart of Ashcroft’s argument is the assertion that the Conservatives were too traditional as they entered the election campaign: “The fact that we did not complete the transformation of the brand meant that Labour scares about our plans, drawing on caricature folk memories of previous Conservative governments, had more resonance than they would otherwise have done.”

Ashcroft focuses exclusively on what he believes the Tories should have strategically have done in order to win office. But he never asks what is the purpose of wielding power. Judging by this pamphlet, politics for Michael Ashcroft can be compared to selling baked beans. It is a matter of providing what the voter wants, and in an attractive package. For Tim Montgomerie it is about something more than that. Since Lord Ashcroft has recently added Conservative Home to his growing publishing empire, the two men can look to some lively conversations.

Peter Oborne is chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph

About the author

Peter Oborne is the chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph and reports for Channel 4's Dispatches and Unreported World. He has written a number of books identifying the power structures that lurk behind political discourse, including The Triumph of the Political Class. He is a regular on BBC programmes Any Questions and Question Time and often presents Week in Westminster. He was voted Columnist of the Year at the Press Awards in 2013.