Waugh Room Memo - 27 April

Posted On: 
27th April 2015

A preview of today's politics as the election campaigns enter their final 10 days. 

Good morning. Just 10 days to go and the parties are using the ‘last full week of campaigning’ to sharpen their messages in the hope of shifting those stubbornly fixed opinion polls.

With the Tories focusing on the SNP and a ‘status quo’ message on the economy, Labour strategists think that their opponents have ‘vacated the pitch’ on several other areas of policy and housing is a big one.

Ed Miliband’s in the key marginal of Stockton announcing his plan to scrap stamp duty for first-time buyers on homes upto £300,000. But just as intriguing is another idea that only ‘local’ people get first dibs on new homes: is that a bid to reassure voters about immigration?

The PM will continue his ‘St David’s Passion’ with a big speech on how to help White Van Man and Woman. Cameron’s also making another rare foray into London marginals later. The PM has just been on Lorraine (with yet another explanation for his Aston Villa ‘brain fade) and he’ll be on 5 News at 5pm.

Ed Balls is in Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon has been on the Today prog.

Nick Clegg (remember him?) is on the Agenda on ITV at 10.40pm.  Natalie Bennett won’t be setting out her own party’s housing plans because she’s lost her voice.

Today’s Sun/YouGov tracker confirms the flatlined poll trend - CON 33%, LAB 34%, LD 8%, UKIP 14%, GRN 5%. All 3 main parties hope that this Thursday’s BBC event will help grab possibly the biggest TV audience of the campaign.

HOMING DEVICE

Labour’s decision to hold back key policies from their manifesto has the merit that it allows them to grab the headlines with genuinely ‘new’ announcements. The stamp duty plan today is just such one.

The idea is to outflank the Tories on what is a hugely important issue, and to get across the message that Labour is more in touch with the real pressures faced by voters. As Angela Eagle declared yesterday (in what’s a running Labour theme), the other message is that Conservatives have more money and newspaper backing but Labour are the underdogs who will stick up for the underdog.

Miliband’s rent controls plan yesterday was a classic example. Although it was slated by the Tories and Lib Dems, it recognised the big shift for younger voters from home owning to renting.

Similarly, today’s stamp duty move is aimed squarely at those hard-pressed voters in key marginals who think the property ladder is moving further out of their grasp.

Yet I think the ‘First Call’ element of the policy is just as interesting. Planning rules will be changed so that first time buyers who have lived in an area for more than three years will have first call on up to half of all the homes built in their area.

Hilary Benn was asked this morning if that wouldn’t exclude people who just moved to an area for a job. He said that councils are more likely to back development if they know their voters will have first dibs on some of the new homes.

ST DAVID’S PASSION

David Cameron in Somerset yesterday tried to inject some more ‘passion’ into his campaign, hitting back at his critics within and without the Tory party. As I said last week, the PM is smart enough to know that he can’t win if voters just see his message as a dry list of statistics.

But he also knows that he can’t escape the logic of his own campaign strategy: a ‘steady as she goes’, security-is-the-priority, stick-with-the-status-quo message isn’t exactly energising stuff. Miliband is beginning to cast this as a change v no change election. May 7 will test some key political theories, not least whether you can with with a ‘no change’ message.

Of course the Tories say they are indeed offering real change with childcare, right to buy, income tax and inheritance tax cuts. But I can’t help thinking that the PM sent the wrong message by letting slip that he would only serve one term. If he isn’t burning with a desire to keep changing the country for the better, why should the voters believe his new-found ‘passion’ now?

I suspect more than the Tory donors and others, Cameron was stung yesterday by Charles Moore saying in the Telegraph:  “A little more passion wouldn’t go amiss.”

Cameron had a neat reply: “If you want political theatre go to Hollywood. If you want political excitement maybe you could go to Greece..”

Cameron may well think that it’s just a bit un-English to get all passionate. But the danger is he comes across sounding more like Alec Douglas-Home than Harold Macmillan.

On the passionless criticisim, Cameron told ITV's Lorraine: ‘It’s the most maddening thing, I’m passionate about what I do…It just redoubles my desire to get out there and tell it like it is.”

When put to him why the Tories didn’t have the same pull as the SNP, which attracted huge crowds yesterday, the PM replied ‘It’s a very difficult question..’

But he also gave a new explanation for his brain fade last week about Aston Villa: “I’d been past West Ham the day before, maybe that was…”

LIFE AFTER DAVE

The Times reports that Tory figures say some of their colleagues could speak out on the night of the election result to question Mr Cameron’s position should he fail to secure a clear win.  “There is a sense that people are just waiting for the polls to close,” said one. “There are people who will not allow Cameron to define the narrative of the result as he was able to do in 2010. You may even get people popping up on the night.”

Still, there’s one donor who has been kneecapped after speaking out in the Sunday Times. Peter Hall, an investment manager who gave the party £100k since 2010, had said there had been a “curious lack of energy” around Cameron and called on him to “unleash visceral passion and belief in his vision of the future”.

But in one of the most ignominious retractions I’ve ever read, Hall put out a statement: “Just to be clear. 1. I am an absolute nobody in politics. 2. I want the Conservative party to win the election and think it has a chance of doing so. 3. The government has done a good job in very difficult circumstances. 4. David Cameron is a better prime minister than I think Boris is likely to be if [he] ever becomes prime minister. 5. I will shut up for now.”

And for all the sniping, Cameron remains the party’s best asset. As for Cameron’s rivals, they didn’t have a great day yesterday. Theresa May went over the top in saying an SNP-dependent Labour minority would cause the biggest constitutional crisis since the Abdication. Nicola Sturgeon said May had made herself look “completely and utterly stupid”. (On last night’s BBC Asian Network, Priti Patel also conceded May’s ‘go home’ immigration vans had been ‘intemperate’ in tone : "I think in hindsight - absolutely.")

Sajid Javid was again wooden on the Sunday Politics, prompting Andrew Neil to ask

“Are you being paid by the cliche, Sajid Javid?”

But the big moment was on Marr when Ed Miliband succeeded in ridiculing Boris over non-doms, his secondary schooling and Lynton Crosby. Tim Montgomerie tweeted that one Tory MP told him afterwards: ‘If he wants top job he needs more precision, less bluster’.

IT’S NOT THE ECONOMY, STUPID?

The way the voters are showing a collective ‘meh’ on the strong economic numbers and jobs stats is beginning to unnerve some Tories. But the Cameron-Osborne-Crosby axis has decided that they have no choice but to play their strongest card to full effect this week.

In his speech (splashed on by the Telegraph), Cameron will say the Tories are the party of “grafters and the roofers and the retailers and the plumbers”, as he pledges to create 600,000 new businesses each year by 2020.

Launching his small business manifesto, the Prime Minister will say that he “gets” and “respects” the small businesses that are the “backbone of our economy”. Tories will do more to ensure that self-employed people can access maternity pay, have help building their pension pots and are given more assistance when they try to obtain mortgages.

The Guardian points out that the GDP figures are due tomorrow and says analysts expect a dip after weaker than expected industrial production, construction output and high street sales in recent months.

Economists expect Tuesday’s figures to show that GDP growth slowed to a quarterly 0.5% in the first three months of this year, down from 0.6% in the final quarter of 2014.

As for the 5,000 small businesses who have written to the Telegraph, Labour says they’re a tiny proportion of the total. And the Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn isn’t happy either, tweeting “CCHQ high priests give a letter from 5,000 small businessmen to the paper of big company bosses and colonels. Sums up all their problem.”

Which brings us back to Boris, perhaps. Boris has a real connection with White Van Man (and as result The Sun), in a way that Cameron and Osborne never will. Maybe the Tories are missing a trick if he’s not with Dave today on this key policy area?

TOO SCOT TO HANDLE

Yesterday, Ed Miliband surpassed James Callaghan to become Labour's 8th longest-serving Leader. Will ‘Sunny Ed’ have the future-offer that steals the sunshine mantle from Cameron? Or will he be more like "Sunny Jim" in running a ragged government that relies on the support of Liberals and Scottish Nationalists?

Miliband’s move on Marr to rule out ‘confidence and supply’ arrangements with the SNP means that he’ll effectively dare the Scots nats to defy a minority government on a vote-by-vote basis.

Miliband believes the Tories have lost their ‘one Nation’ history by attacking the Scots threat, but the key question is whether UKIP-tempted Tories are returning to the fold.

The Guardian has a letter from DUP leader Nigel Dodds warning Cameron of the dangers of overdoing his Tartan terror talk. “At the moment, the current state of the campaign greatly concerns me.” Dodds doesn’t like EVEL and also criticised the “glib and lazy talk” about SNP MPs’ “legitimacy” in Westminster, saying it “simply fuels nationalist paranoia”.

‘Red’ Len McCluskey has given the Tories a gift, telling the Guardian Miliband should work with the SNP. “I would expect him to work well with any progressive party who seeks to support the vision that he has of changing Britain for the better."

The Times in Scotland reports of more internal Labour divisions fuelled by Jim Murphy’s decision to have a pop at his predecessors in the job.

The Times reports that Peter Mandelson’s strategy group Global Counsel has put out a note warning that EVEL could trigger Sturgeon’s ‘material’ change in circumstances for a second referendum. But the Tories have pounced on quotes from Gregor Irwin, chief economist at the group, who wrote: “from an SNP perspective they may need to be more patient under Labour, but they gain more immediately in terms of policy influence”.

Sturgeon told Today she had ‘done everything within our power’ to protect NHS spending. But this is a tricky one for her: the FT (and the IFS) point out Scots spending has been lower. The FT’s audit of SNP rule at Holyrood found that its record was ‘at odds with left wing pretensions’

Sturgeon also told Today: “Even if we won every seat in Scotland that would not be a mandate for a referendum”.

CLEGGING IT

The Lib Dems are being pounded daily by the Tories in their South West heartlands. And despite all their focus on their marginals rather than national polls, the party knows that the loss of its SNP-facing and Labour-facing seats is almost a foregone conclusion. If those South West seats go Tory, there could well be the meltdown that Lord Oakeshott (remember him?) predicted before he was drummed out of the party (speaking of which, remember too that the controversial local polls that got him into so much trouble had presciently spelled difficulty for Clegg and Danny Alexander).

But Clegg’s remarks to the FT on Saturday certainly caused jitters among some in the party. Clegg’s natural dislike of Balls and Miliband, plus his own local battle in Sheffield, may have skewed his view of politics to the extent that he’s ready to rule out any Lib-Lab coalition.

Clegg doesn’t want a Lib-Lab coalition that relies on SNP votes, but that would mean the party ‘recharging its batteries’ from the sidelines in a way David Laws said wouldn’t happen. And if the Lib Dems do opt for time out of Government, life with a shrunken party could be very grim indeed.

Notts Uni’s Phil Cowley made an excellent point on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour last night: if the Lib Dems become the fourth largest party in the Commons, they would lose even their Opposition voice at PMQs. There would be four questions from the new Tory leader, two from the SNP leader and none for the Lib Dems. Which, after 5 years of seeing their leader sitting mute alongside Dave, would gall many of the party’s supporters.