Who is really, definitely, unquestionably in charge of this year’s Conservative party election campaign? The reason that I ask that question – dismissed in public as “processology” by leaders and their aides who would always rather keep the focus on their tightly-controlled “public” events – is simple. The architecture of a campaign and the choices made by a leader about its command structure quite often have an impact on the course of an election, and sometimes on the outcome or the size of the majority.
David Cameron made a mess of his first general election and fell short, in 2010, partly because he declined to impose order and would not choose between squabbling aides below him. There was shoeless Steve Hilton, and Andy Coulson, and George Osborne, and George Bridges trying to bring order alongside Lynton Crosby, along with assorted others. The result was no coherent message other than a vague sense that the young leadership knew it was their turn, which is not a good look. One manifestation of this lack of focus was a campaign launch centred on the “big society” (good Burkean idea, terrible name) that resembled a failed art installation.
Whenever I hear George Osborne described as a magnificent strategist (and he is a very talented politician, which is not quite the same thing) my mind goes back to that 2010 campaign and the look on his face when asked by my colleague Simon Nixon what type of election it was. In essence, what’s it all about, George? The then shadow chancellor looked as though he had never been asked nor considered this fundamental question. It was, he said vaguely and not convincingly, a “change election.”
In 2015, to their credit Cameron and Osborne realised they needed a different approach. Lynton Crosby, the Australian election specialist, was hired and put in charge. There was iron discipline. A baseball bat was taken to Ed Miliband and Cameron delivered clear messages. Behind the scenes, the Tories ran an exemplary data operation and digital campaign which helped them work out that they were “in” through the door in the South West. They set about destroying their coalition partners the Lib Dems there and elsewhere. An overall majority – not predicted, other than by Crobsy and a few others on his team – was the result. In the annals of Tory ruthlessness in pursuit of power and the demolition of enemies it was a stellar episode, although it remains…