Monday, 15 November 2010

Needless slaughter awaits if Conservatives can't get on message

Nearly two months ago, Michael Fallon became deputy chairman of the Conservative Party.  The appointment was greeted warmly by the likes of Benedict Brogan ("a smart appointment" of "an adept media performer") and Tim Montgomerie ("the thinking man's rottweiler") as a sign that the senior party in Government was sharpening up its communications strategy after what Paul Goodman described as a summer of "no effective counter-attack" to "the Labour and media assault on the Government."

Goodman, the former Conservative MP for Wycombe, said that the Government's cull of special advisers had "blunted its political edge".  The Coalition needed a simple message to counter the Labour opposition's crass but straightforward "Tory cuts" line.  This message must be communicated relentlessly through the media.  Crucially, the party needed "to find and unleash attack dogs."  Enter Michael Fallon, who Brogan nominated as "Minister for the Today Programme".

And the former MP for Darlington (I declare no interest) has made a steady - if inobtrusive - start.  Last Thursday, Fallon tore into shadow chancellor Alan Johnson's fallacious assertion that the Labour Government was "never living beyond our means."  As a member of the Treasury Select Committee between 1999 and 2010, Fallon knows keenly how deluded a statement this is.  He rightly declared it "as hollow as Gordon Brown's claim to have 'ended boom and bust'."

Then yesterday, Fallon picked up on the massive policy gulf between Mr Johnson and his leader, Ed Miliband on the 50p income tax rate and university funding.  Johnson, as the Labour minister who introduced tuition fees, is against a graduate tax, and on Sunday's Politics Show he admitted that his party had yet to agree on a "considered policy" on the top rate of tax.  Miliband wants to make it permanent but his shadow chancellor has said otherwise.

Michael Fallon said, "It's an extraordinary admission... Seven weeks after he was chosen, Ed Miliband still can't make up his mind - there's still no Plan A."

In two statements, Fallon is transmitting two simple political messages: 1) Remind the public of the hubristic hash that was Labour's economic mismanagement, and 2) Highlight the sclerotic, rudderless inertia and incertitude that is Labour in opposition - personified by the cleavage between Ed Miliband and Alan Johnson.

The Conservative Party needs a coherent, attacking message centred on these themes.  At the same time, reminding people that what the Government is doing is a good thing.  Tim Montgomerie writes today on Conservative Home, a right-wing political website, that David Cameron needs to make a quartet of political appointments to the Downing Street machine in order to address its weakness of message and capacity to drift.

Whilst I am a bit sceptical of Mr Montgomerie's motives in singling out specific names for specific jobs (maybe he is implicitly recommending a fifth position - himself, as No 10's HR manager), the point he makes is an important one.  The Prime Minister surrounds himself with people "he's comfortable with" and as a result "few people say uncomfortable things to him."  There is a genuine danger that too much of the Hilton-esque Big Society narrative - while it is sound and relevant (see Chris Butt on ConHome), it is terrible branding - is going straight over people's heads.  Conversely, the asinine but uncomplicated anti-cuts message from Labour is registering with the public (as recent opinion polls would suggest).

Someone does need to be ramming the message home that the cuts are not as bad as ideologically myopic elements of the media proclaim, and nor does the Labour Party have a credible alternative - or, for that matter, credibility.

If the Prime Minister has salaried space for an official photographer then I'm sure that he is able to find room for the sort of positions that Montgomerie has adumbrated.  Yet if you allow me to be uncharacteristically partisan for a brief moment, David Cameron remains head of a coalition government, transmitting a coalition message, from a coalition platform.  That was a mistake made in the summer in the form of Baroness Warsi and Chris Huhne's joint party-political press conference.

There needs to be a distinctive Conservative Party voice and the deputy chairman, Michael Fallon, should be it, and he should be heard louder and more frequently.  This is not a call to arms for a war of New Labour subterfuge and spin.  This is simply ensuring that the British public understand why this (Conservative led) Government is doing what it is doing.

Even in doing so, the party is bound to suffer to some extent in the provincial and local elections next May.  If the party fails to make this case, the suffering will become a slaughter.

1 comment:

  1. I think the conservative party are already losing "touch" with the public. This story just being a number. The local elections next year I think, will prove that.