The Tories’ 35% strategy shows they know they cannot win outright in 2015

George Osborne with Red Box, Budget 2012“The 35% Strategy”. The phrase was initially coined by Dan Hodges to decry the Labour leader’s soft-left leadership:

Forget the One Nation strategy, Ed Miliband is pursuing what is known within his inner circle as the 35 Per Cent Strategy. Come 2015, he thinks he can stagger over the line with 35 per cent of the vote.

Less commented on is that the Tories have also been adopting their own 35% strategy under the tutelage of strategist Lynton Crosby. Today’s news that George Osborne has ruled out any post-2015 tax rises to reduce the deficit — Vote Conservative in 2015 for no more tax rises, George Osborne says — is the latest piece of evidence.

Osborne is lining up the 2015 dividing lines. Just as Gordon Brown constantly tried to frame politics around the binary ‘Tory cuts v Labour investment’, so the Chancellor wants 2015 to be about ‘Tory welfare cuts v Labour/Lib Dem tax rises’. As he declared yesterday:

“That is my Budget book and I stand by it and I think this can be delivered through spending and savings both in welfare and in departments, and there is no need for tax rises to contribute to that fiscal consolidation.”

Those welfare cuts will almost certainly include stopping under 25s from claiming Housing Benefit and limiting child benefit to the first two children: two flawed and unfair Tory proposals the Lib Dems have repeatedly thwarted but which refuse to die.

As a way of solidifying the flaky Tory vote, it’s not such bad tactics. As a strategy for reaching out to those voters the Tories need to reach to win a majority in their own right, it’s doomed. As I suggested recently to ConservativeHome readers:

The polls consistently show the public wants the Government to get tougher on ‘scroungers’, so it makes electoral sense, yes? I’m doubtful. While each of his measures might individually be popular, taken together they suggest a Conservative Party that’s retreated to a core vote strategy, has given up on reaching out to the 40 per cent of the public it needs to persuade. And we know what happened when they tried that tack in 2001. And again in 2005.

The Tories cannot win the next election on 35% of the vote. The party scored 37% of the vote in 2010. Nothing that has happened in the past three years suggests the Tories want to woo those voters who last time opted for Labour or the Lib Dems.

So what is George Osborne playing at? Well, first he’s shoring up the party’s right flank, dog-whistling to those Ukip defectors who want to see the Government crack down on perceived welfare and immigration abuses. It’s a deeply defensive ploy.

And secondly, he’s putting down a marker for the next set of coalition negotiations: after all, that’s the best the Tories can hope for with their current ‘keep right’ strategy. If Osborne can win the public argument on further welfare crackdowns it will make it that much harder for the Lib Dems to continue rejecting them; at the very least the party may have to concede ground to the Tories on other issues (Trident, for-profit schools?).

In sum, it’s classic Osborne. A tactically clever move which seeks to shift the debate on welfare further to the right. But it’s also the clearest sign yet that the Tories know their 35% strategy means they cannot win outright in 2015.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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14 Comments

  • The voices behind the Tory throne are ruthless, and if they too, have concluded that Cameron cannot pull the Tory caravan past 35%, then I suspect it will be Theresa May as PM by spring 2014 at the latest?

  • That’s whats largely gone wrong with this coalition. Lib Dems have allowed tories to tell the narrative, the story. They have framed the debates in terms of strivers and scroungers and have been allowed to go unchallenged. As soon as that happens, they win.

  • Having known a few UKIP members quite well for some time – I am given to understand that some pact is likely to be reached between them and the Tories before the next GE, whereby the value of the two parties votes will be maximised – even if Cameron remains leader – and a certainty if he does not.

  • @ John Roffey

    “Having known a few UKIP members quite well for some time – I am given to understand that some pact is likely to be reached between them and the Tories before the next GE, whereby the value of the two parties votes will be maximised – even if Cameron remains leader – and a certainty if he does not.”

    I’m not sure how they are going to achieve such a pact with any leader in place. And what about the impact on the moderate Tory vote on them allying with a party that wants massive tax cuts for the rich and an insane pull out from the EU. A Tory party tarred with the UKIP brush is not going to have the appeal that even the supposedly modernised party did in 2010.

    I look forward to the Tories differentiating themselves from us, because it means we in turn will be differentiated from them. Perhaps they haven’t thought of that angle yet.

  • I’ve also spoken to local Tories who would know, and they are convinced that a deal will be done with UKIP because it has to be. I can’t see the mechanics myself, but I’ve heard the same as John Roffey.

  • Michelle Taylor 12th Jul '13 - 1:17pm

    It’s much harder to frame the narrative without egregiously lying about everything, and as a party the LDs are pretty allergic to lying – Clegg and Farron are trying their best, bless them, with the all-hands emails full of garbage they keep sending out, but it’s not quite at the heady heights of the welfare story’s complete disengagement with reality.

    Unfortunately the message ‘actually everything is quite complicated really’ doesn’t make a good story.

  • John Roffey 12th Jul '13 - 1:41pm

    @RC

    Whatever deal is struck is almost certain to depend on how UKIP are doing in the polls approaching the GE. Previously Farage would have been happy to wind up the Party for a promise of an ‘In/Out’ referendum [which now exists].

    The significant rise in the Party’s fortunes have meant that more can be asked, perhaps NF would now be happy to do the same for a seat in the HofL and a Cabinet post. However, I understand that other members of the NEC [who usually support NF to the hilt] have become more ambitious after seeing the Party’s support rise to such a degree across the political spectrum – which they expect to peak at the time of the EU Elections – where they always do well.

    If they are to remain as separate parties, the ‘Better off Out’ concept could apply – where UKIP withdraw their candidate where the Tories are fighting marginals if the their candidate makes it clear on their election material that they believe the UK would be better off out of the EU.

    In the past nothing else was asked for the UKIP candidate to withdraw. However, if UKIP remain high in the polls – as is likely to be the case – they might require the Tories to withdraw their candidates in a handful of seats where they have no hope, but UKIP has been showing a strong presence.

    In the end it will probably be decided by Stuart Wheeler, the one time Tory donor, who now supports Ukip and has been the mastermind behind the Party’s change in fortune.

  • This was pretty obvious before the 2010 election.. A Lot of it is down to the Conservatives having a core vote with an aging demographic. and the inability of their leaders to take that vote with them in a more liberal direction. For all the problems with the Blair Government it changed social attitudes to an incredible level, something that Cameron knows very well.
    Personally,I would not worry about UKIP. They were nowhere in the last general election and to a great extent they represent votes that the Tories have lost since then. 35% is actually the Tories best case scenario , assuming the UKIP vote goes back to them . More likely is between 29 and 32%. because incumbant parties virtually never increase their vote share.

  • @ John Roffey

    I still think that in standing UKIP/Conservative candidates, they will lose to the left what they gain on the right. Effectively they will be standing on a different (and much more right wing) ticket from 2010’s superficially moderate, just right of centre, supposedly detoxified Cameron-style platform. More cuts to public services, pullout from the EU, shredding of workplace rights, junking of investment in renewables.

    Voting UKIP Conservative or Liberal Democrat will be the choice in many constituencies and if it is, it could see many moderate voters turning tail from the Tories and fleeing, hopefully in our direction.

    Any open, publicly proclaimed alliance between the two parties would be electoral suicide. Bring it on!

  • John Roffey 12th Jul '13 - 5:47pm

    @RC

    What has astonished commentators is that UKIP are picking up sizeable support in traditional Labour strongholds – given their policies, this clearly is a protest vote.

    What I think is missed in most discussions, of this nature, is the intense anger that has built up, and continues to build, towards the political class in general. Farage’s popularity is rooted in his ‘man of the people’ image despite the fact that if they believed he would win they would run in horror at many of the Party’s policies.

    The distinct lack of ‘common touch’ from the leaders of the three mainstream parties during these very difficult times means that, if Farage does not get the disaffected vote – the door is open for one of the smaller parties to burst on the scene – if they have right leader.

  • The best hope for Tories is to encourage the line that Lib Dems are deceitful proto-Tories and to discourage natural Labour voters from voting Lib Dem in Lib Dem seats where Labour has no chance. In other words to encourage Labour voters to facilitate Conservative wins at the expense of Lib Dem.

    This strategy has already been proved in the AV v FPTP referendum.

  • Andrew Colman 13th Jul '13 - 8:41am

    If the tories change their leader, a general election should be called immediately. The Lib Dems and Labour (who I am sure would oblige) should make sure parliament is dissolved

  • “What I think is missed in most discussions, of this nature, is the intense anger that has built up, and continues to build, towards the political class in general.”
    I think that statement from John Roffey, hits the nail on the head. What is even more astonishing is that the political class is in such a bubble of self interest, that they do not even seem to grasp just how intensely, the public holds them in contempt.

  • Gloy Plopwell 26th Jul '13 - 1:15am

    Lib dems don’t need a coalishion anyway, because we can win an overall majority on our own, with stupendous momentum.

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