It is said of Ed Miliband that he has a 35% strategy: reach out to the Labour heartlands and victory in 2015 will follow. There are various flaws with this approach – you just have to ask Michael Howard how his dog-whistling 2005 campaign ended up.
David Cameron always knew that for the Tories to win an outright majority, he would have to do two things. First, provide the feeling that there is an economic upswing (whether real or imagined). Second, encourage voters who would never support a ‘nasty party’ to give the Tories a chance. (There are possibly two other things – don’t mess up the NHS – which he has forgotten; and a fourth – limit Ukip success to non-General Election plebiscites – we won’t know whether he’s succeeded until 8 May 2015).
By 2015, there is bound to be a feeling that the corner has been turned economically. (It’s also my guess that the NHS will have received a lot of extra money from new providers, thus masking the effects of its balkanisation until later on in the decade, and neutralising the issue.) That leaves the second problem: that many people in the country aren’t going to vote for a party that they see as still populated by extremists. Modernisation of the Tory brand was meant to put paid to this problem. Cameron started gingerly with his hoody-hugging, but earlier this week we saw an example of what modernisation means in terms of policy. To his credit, Cameron was prepared to split his party (and rely on Labour) to do the right thing on equal marriage. Of course, the resulting hysteria among the Tory right means that anything is possible – the party may implode, and there may indeed be defection to Ukip. But while Cameron remains leader of his party (and is more popular than his party) he has the chance to reach out to those who have not been prepared to vote Conservative since 1992.
But there’s one small thing in the fall out about the swivel-eyed revelations that has intrigued me, and that’s Cameron’s email to party activists. It is a measured piece of work and it feels as though it is written to the country rather than the party. The second and third paragraphs, about community and activism are (some language aside: ‘family, community, country’ sounds a bit too much like the slogan of Vichy France that Petain secretly preferred over ‘travail, famille, patrie’), while not exactly a match, a creed that many Labour activists could sign up to. Cameron could have thrown his party more red meat if he had wanted, and talked about the NHS and free schools and so on, but he has not given up what Gordon Brown tried and so miserably failed to do – the task of presenting himself as the leader of the nation and not just his party.
Cameron often loses it under fire: his temper tantrums at PMQs are not what you want to see – but he had the chance to speak only to his party this week and instead spoke to the country instead. With Ukip around that’s a high risk strategy, but he knows that for the Tory brand it’s the only thing that will work.