Monday evening, Grant Shapps was interviewed by Evan Davis on Newsnight. Davis pointed out that the Tories’ claim that a Labour government would cost every working household £3,028 was incorrect – the TV journalist explained that the £3k figure was actually a five year projection, not per year as insinuated. Also, that the £15 billion figure the Tories are using as the base calculation has been disputed by the IFS. In fact, they think the figure is closer to around £100 a year, per household, all told. The difference between paying £100 more tax a year is quite a bit different than paying £3k more tax.
I bring this up because the Shapps interview encapsulates for me everything that is wrong with the Tories’ election campaign so far. They have an obvious narrative that will probably work if they just relentlessly drive it home: better the devil you know, the one that’s kept things on an even keel the last five years, than the great unknown of Labour. For instance, they only need to say that taxes will go up under Labour – not pluck out some fantasy £3k figure they must have known would be seriously challenged. Now they seem like they don’t know the figures, which is a huge part of their entire pitch to the electorate.
Then there’s all the personal attacks on Miliband, which have backfired and will continue to do so. There is a large group of people the Tories need to target who don’t want Miliband to be prime minister because they think he’s indecisive and perhaps fiscally remiss – not because they think he’s a demon made flesh. Attacking him the way Cameron did in his campaign opening speech, particularly that “sneering socialists” line, again played to the Tories’ weaknesses: they call you the “nasty party”, chaps. Being deliberately nasty isn’t going to help you overcome that perception. Also, being snide on Downing Street immediately negates the statesmanlike vibe you were trying to project.
I know it’s very early days and perhaps it’s harsh to judge any of the campaigns at this stage. But it has really been a much worse start for the Conservatives than I would have ever imagined possible. I pictured a well-oiled machine emerging from the din while the Labour campaign amounted to the bacon sandwich incident times six. Instead, we’ve had Cameron talking about Miliband in bitchy teenaged tones and Grant Shapps trying to contradict the IFS while fending off Michael Green related put downs. All while things have gone fairly smoothly for Labour. Even the worst thing for them thus far, John McDonnell doing his damnedest to unconsciously convince swing voters that a Labour government would be like the darkest days of the Stalin regime, mostly slipped by unnoticed due to the Tories fighting too many fires to capitalise.
It could all just amount to a slight misfire, one the Tories will recover from. However, given the problems the electoral system poses for them, they really didn’t need any setbacks. This past week revealed to me that perhaps the Tories had simply assumed that the British public couldn’t possibly elect Ed Miliband as prime minister no matter what. Assumptions are always a bad idea around general election time, particularly ones that involve dangerously underestimating your main opponent.