Tuesday 15 February 2011

Why Cameron failed, by his new director of strategy Andrew Cooper

Andrew Cooper is to become Downing Street director of strategy, having been head of the pollster Populus.

There was a nervous reaction from Tim Montgomerie, the influential editor of ConservativeHome, who quickly tweeted:

Andrew Cooper once described the Tory grassroots as "vile" to me. And now he's head of strategy for David Cameron.

There is good evidence that Montgomerie, and the Tory backbench and grassroots right more generally, have substantive reasons to be nervous. Cooper has a good claim to be a Tory moderniser long before David Cameron. He started out in the SDP - although this is not that unusual among Tory centrists. (Believing that joining the euro could really give the Tories a clause four moment - an intriguing Montgomerie scoop - is rather more unusual, though allegedly not from any pro-EU conviction). [UPDATE: The Daily Mail also references Montgomerie's claim on the euro, including in the headline of its report, which also includes a categorical denial from Andrew Cooper: "I have always opposed the euro and have never advocated that Britain should join it"].

The new director of strategy certainly takes a pretty much diametrically opposed view of why the Tories fell short at the last election to that offered in the ConservativeHome post-election inquest. Cooper strongly supports the thesis that the Conservatives fell short because voters did not feel that they had changed enough - which does indeed cast the Tory party as much more the problem than the solution.

Surprisingly little attention has been paid to the evidence that Cameron is no longer seen as more centrist than his party by the public. But Cooper will probably fear the truth in Ed Miliband's observation that "we are seeing the recontamination of the Tory brand". Cooper will, at the least, share his fellow liberal Tory moderniser Ian Birrell's emphasis that "brand detox must remain the Tory priority".

Much of this is on the public record because Andrew Cooper spoke candidly in giving an incisive and convincing insider's account of the failure of David Cameron's general election campaign to win a majority, at the launch last November of the Dennis Kavanagh and Phillip Cowley book on "The British General Election of 2010".

The event included Cooper's revelation that Cameron and Osborne had understood for some time that they had not done enough to convince voters that the party had changed to win a majority, and that Cameron was focused much more on the danger that he would not get over 300 seats (and therefore probably get to Downing Street) than the possibility, which he now thought remote, that the Tories might get to 326 seats.

This was how I reported Andrew Cooper's critique of the Tory election campaign for the New Statesman:

For Cooper, the most telling poll finding of the campaign was that 75 per cent of voters believed it was time for a change from Labour, but only 34 per cent believed it was time for a change from Labour and to the Conservatives, a point also made in the book.

He said last night that the strategic weakness of the Tory campaign was always to respond with an "unremittingly negative" attack on Gordon Brown, which failed to take on board how far the decisive electoral question remained voters' doubts about the Conservatives. This meant that they failed to secure enough support – most notably in Scotland, in London (particularly among non-white voters), and among public-sector workers and the less well-off, where those who agreed it was time for a change remained repelled by the risk of the "same old Tories".

As the Tory leadership realised this, they began to make "much more detailed preparations for a hung parliament than anybody realised", Cooper said. That the lack of depth of its "brand decontamination" effort over the five-year parliament was the party's critical weakness was well understood by the leadership in the second half of the parliament.

Indeed, this failing kept David Cameron awake at nights – a detail that captures why the Conservatives are so exercised (as are the Lib Dems) about the Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis showing that their Budget and Spending Review are regressive. As Cowley and Kavanagh report:

"Populus developed mood boards to study the Conservative and Labour images and reported each quarter. The most worrying finding for the Conservatives was the perception that they would, in a crunch, stick up for rich and privileged people. Cameron privately confessed late in 2008 that the persistence of this last image kept him awake at night. It was a factor in his shadow cabinet reshuffle in 2009. That the perception declined only slightly by the time the election was called reflected the limits of Cameron's brand decontamination strategy".

This was never resolved, partly as no choice was ever made between competing strategies and instincts of George Osborne, Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson. Ultimately, somewhat by default, Cameron leaned closest to the Coulson focus on tough daily newslines, rather than concentrating on the failure to articulate the Tory alternative. So the book reports Cameron texting the inner circle, after an inconclusive session around the time of the spring conference at the end of February, that the "navel-gazing" about Tory messaging was unhelpful. The answer was to focus more relentlessly on "change" and Gordon Brown's record.


With this analysis, Cooper was, in effect, voicing a significant criticism of George Osborne's approach to electoral and campaign strategy.

Cooper certainly worked closely with George Osborne. As Cowley and Kavanagh report in their book, "Osborne, a keen student of the polls, had many informal discussions with Andrew Cooper, and in February 2010 the pollster was recruited to the campaign team, with a desk in party headquarters'.

But, as the authors set out, Osborne was also the voice of the "relentlessly negative" messaging which, on Cooper's analysis, simply poured energy and resources into an argument the Tories had won for lack of any clear answer to the conundrum they could not address:

Within the Cameron camp, there was a long-running tension between those who wanted to remain positive about the Conservative 'brand' and those who felt that they should be attacking the government more.

The former group believed that Labour and Gordon Brown were finished - 'toast' as one described them - and the public needed no further reasons not to vote Labour. What they did need, however, were reasons to vote for the Conservatives, particularly in those parts of the country where reassurance was necessary. So focusing on Labour's failings was a waste of time. What the Conservatives needed to do was to strengthen their own brand.

The latter group rejected this analysis, and wanted to keep their 'foot on Gordon Brown's neck" (a phrase George Osborne would use to his team) until the very end ...

The result was frequent confusion about the messages.
(Kavanagh and Cowley, 'The British General Election of 2010', p132)

Cooper has pursued the case that much deeper change was needed than most Tories acknowledged for well over a decade.

As Tim Bale reports in his excellent 'The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron' (just out in paperback last month) ex-SDP membership was a common strand with his moderniser colleagues Daniel Finkelstein and Rick Nye who worked with Cooper in the early 'modernising' phase of the William Hague leadership. Bale sets out how Cooper and Finkelstein set out many of the tenets of Cameronism in their 'Kitchen Table Conservatives' paper for Hague in September 1998.

It was an effort then revived by Cooper and Michael Gove in their C-Change presentation in 2003, during the dark days of the IDS leadership.

Again, after the 2005 election, Cooper produced a presentation which emphasised that 79 per cent of Tory voters felt the party was "on the right track to get into power before too long" but only 28 per cent of non-Tories agreed.

The Cooper-Gove moderniser's' maxims for C-Change in 2003 offered a route-map for the pre-Cameron Cameroons, including the future leader himself. Here they are, as reported by Bale:

1. Always try to see ourselves through the voters' eyes.

2. Talk about the issues that matter most to voters (not the issues that we're most at home with).

3. Use the language of people, not the language of politicians.

4. "Tell people what we stand for - not (just) what is wrong with Labour. Unless we give voters new reasons to support us they won't.

5. Remember Tim Bell's rule: 'if they haven't heard it, you haven't said it' - so repetition is vital.

6. Respect modern Britain. If we seem not to like Britain today, the feeling will surely be reciprocated.

7. Don't be shrill or strident - that's not how normal civilised people behave.

8. Remember that whatever we are talking about, the most important message is what we are saying about ourselves.

9. Face the fact that we lost people's trust because of how we behave (and sound) as well as what we say".

10. Focus on the voters we have to win, don't preach to the converted.

11. Be disciplined and consistent.

The focus on turning the Tories into 'normal civilised people' does suggest a particular view of the party as mainly containing idiosyncratic, swivel-eyed ideologues. What is also striking now is just how strongly the emphasis is on etiquette and behaviour, and just how little there is on political content.

Perhaps one of the lessons of David Cameron's incomplete and shallow modernisation of his party is that good manners are important, but not a substitute for a political strategy.


If Cooper's instincts are obvious, the contentful future of Tory modernisation is much less clear. The evidence to date is that the Tory brand has retained sufficient power to have toxified the David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Liberal Democrat brands - and that of the big society too. (I hope the huskies have escaped the toxifying effect- but they might want to focus group whether they now have a reputation for being too interested in photo opportunities).

Can the Tory party stick to its deficit reduction strategy and "there is no alternative" line on spending cuts - and also take the 'brand detox' strategy through the ceiling it hit when in the rather easier environment of opposition?

It seems pretty difficult when the cuts are - for the public - undermining the big society, rather more than the big society is broadening out perceptions of what the government is about beyond cuts.

And calling a truce with the bankers as bonuses come back won't help, whatever the merits of the policy may be.

So where could Cooper, Cameron and the Tory modernisers go from here?

The right will be nervous at the loss of the Hilton-Coulson balancing act, and will be wary of any sign that the "uber-modernisers" are in the ascendancy. The news that they now have an ex-Green voter and an ex-SDP member at the heart of Cameron's Downing Street may not settle those tribal Tory nerves.

Yet one way for the Cameroons to resist that pressure may be to seek solace in Cleggite Coalition.

For every other Liberal Democrat who is not called David Laws, it might perhaps be time to man the defences against more unrequited Cameroonian love-bombing on the premise that the survival of the Coalition may depend on an electoral pact.

1 comment:

Tacitus said...

I suppose on a more positive note it is good that a Tory considers the minions within his own party as vile, rather than, as normal, most Tories viewing us oiks in that way.

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