The process of drawing up a manifesto is considerably different once a party is in government. Unlike in opposition, where a political party’s primary focus is the next election, being in power means senior members of the party are engaged in Ministerial positions and simply do not have the time to devote to future policy development. By this point in the last Parliament the Conservative Party was producing a series of detailed policy green papers across a range of issues that went on to form the basis of the 2010 manifesto. It will not undertake a similar exercise this time until much nearer election day.
To understand how the Conservatives will develop their 2015 election manifesto it is helpful to look at Labour’s policy development process in the years preceding the 2010 election. Ed Miliband, Energy Secretary under Gordon Brown, led the development of the document for three years but activity accelerated significantly in the last 18 months. The significant government documents that foreshadowed the manifesto were both produced in 2009 – Chancellor Alistair Darling’s Spring Budget, and the wide-ranging statement of government policy, Building Britain’s Future, that was published shortly afterwards.
Drawing on that analogy, it is reasonable to assume that Oliver Letwin will take on the coordinator role for the Conservatives ahead of 2015, potentially supported by some of the up-and-coming younger Ministers. We can also look ahead to the 2014 Budget and Queen’s Speech being important political moments that will frame the 2015 general election and seek to provide popular policies that cut through with the electorate.
The Conservative message at the general election will be straightforward: “Britain’s on the right track, don’t turn back”. The Prime Minister and Chancellor believe that this message enabled President Obama to win in very difficult circumstances, enabling him to point to his opposition and claim that they had not changed and couldn’t be trusted with an economy that they had wrecked in the first place. This is exactly the position the Conservatives want to put Labour in, and it is why Cameron chose three issues in his party conference speech – deficit, welfare reform, and schools – where he thinks Labour are on the wrong side of public opinion.
He will look during 2013 to widen that gap in perception. The exact shape of policy, though, will still be in development during the year, before the campaign moves into the next phase.
To deliver that campaign the Conservatives have taken the controversial decision to bring back legendary campaigner Lynton Crosby. Crosby has a superb record, delivering several Australian general election victories for John Howard and two successful mayoral campaigns for Boris Johnson. He is very popular with staffers and will bring discipline to the campaign. However, his reputation in the UK is indelibly linked to some divisive (and unsuccessful) messages that Michael Howard’s Conservative Party used in the 2005 campaign.
Crosby will work part-time at first before going full-time in the run-up to the election.
Despite mischief-making by some opponents, his appointment was sanctioned by George Osborne, who ran the 2010 campaign and will spearhead the 2015 campaign too.
Crosby will operate in tandem with the new, campaigning chairman of the Conservative Party, Grant Shapps. Shapps has symbolically set up a countdown clock to the election in CCHQ and begun formulating his plan for a 40/40 campaign, focusing on 40 existing Conservative marginal seats and 40 potential gains. Many of the 40 marginal seats are currently held by Liberal Democrats (such as Lorely Burt’s in Solihull) with Shapps insisting there would be “no mercy” in the Conservatives’ targeting of Lib Dem seats despite being in coalition.
The risk factor: issues that could influence the 2015 result
Anaemic growth and the potential for unemployment to rise once more
Jeopardising economic credibility by missing fiscal targets
Rising energy prices and general inflation, particularly in food prices
Holding on to the new-found unity on European strategy following David Cameron’s promise of an in-out referendum
Reduction in the top rate of tax and a reputation for being ‘out of touch’
Unpopularity of NHS reform
Implementation of the Universal Credit, potential for major IT disaster
Local opposition to new development, particularly on the green belt
The key audiences