“Cameron: my plan to win back disgruntled Tories,” thundered the front page of yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph. “Labour races into 4-point lead after Miliband’s TV success,” countered the splash in The Sunday Times.
Perhaps the penny is beginning to drop in Tory HQ. Perhaps the realisation is growing that on their current trajectory, the Conservatives are not going to secure an overall majority on May 7. Perhaps they will not even be the largest party in a hung Parliament. And perhaps steps will have to be taken – late in the day – to win back lifelong Tories who have defected to Ukip.
That, at least, was the burden of the Sunday Telegraph splash. Despite Nigel Farage slipping out of the headlines in recent weeks and a run of poor stories for his party, Ukip is still polling in the mid teens. And at least half of the party’s support comes from the “disgruntled Tories” Cameron is supposedly targeting. Add 7 or 8 points to YouGov’s 32 per cent Conservative rating and Cameron is close to the 40 per cent he needs to be sure of outright victory.
As Cameron put it: “I accept I have a task in the next 41 days to win back people who are instinctively Conservative, who have strong Conservative values and some of them have drifted off to other parties. I need to win them back.”
So what were these Tory defectors being offered by the Prime Minister? Rather less than the headline promised. Not so much a full-blown plan to win them back as a few sketchy offerings:
An unspecified expansion of the meagre married couple allowance introduced over George Osborne’s dead body next month – worth nothing to middle class voters earning above the £42,000 threshold for higher rate tax and up to £212 a year for basic rate payers. Pretty soon the only stay-at-home mothers will be members of the Royal Family or denizens of Benefits Street.
Action on immigration? A cap on migrants from the rest of the EU is ruled out. But Cameron is pledged to reduce the “pull factor” by making newcomers wait four years before they can access our generous benefits system. Not enough for the many millions of Brits who consider their country full up.
A promise to maintain UK defence spending at at least 2 per cent of national output – the Nato target? Not exactly. “I don’t want to make a commitment now before I know whether I can meet it.” But troop numbers will not be cut further.
As for Europe more generally, Cameron still refuses to contemplate recommending an Out vote in his planned 2017 referendum. “Nothing is ruled out” but he is “confident” he can get the changes he wants, a rather modest shopping list which includes an end to “ever closer union”, strengthened powers for national parliaments, and curbs on interference with UK courts and policing.
It is hard to imagine any half serious Ukip defector being impressed by any of the above. Some things once done, such as gay marriage, one of the biggest drivers of the Tory exodus, cannot be undone. Others, like Cameron’s refusal to threaten to quit the EU unless he gets his way, or the feeble stance on defence, fall well short of a compelling message to erstwhile Conservatives. And it is noteworthy that although the PM ducks a clear commitment on defence spending, he is happy for his Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to pledge an extra £8 billion for the NHS. That would buy a few jet planes or stop our armed forces declining to a paltry 50,000 by the end of the decade, the figure implied by current spending plans.
The likelihood is that the Tory high command will make few concessions to Ukip defectors in the few weeks left before polling day. Its modernisation strategy, conceived long ago, contains little scope for appealing to traditional Conservatives, many with socially conservative attitudes, who have quit the party in droves over the past five years. Viewed as “dinosaurs” by the hip young metropolitans who “advise” the PM and the Chancellor, they were once thought to have nowhere to turn until Mr Farage appeared on the scene. Now, for a complex cocktail of reasons tied up with the relentlessly liberal, politically correct attitudes enforced by the ruling elite, they are likely to see their bitter rebellion through to the end.
That leaves demonising Ed Miliband as a crazed, leftwing firebrand as about the only shot left in the locker. But even that tactic looks questionable given that the Che Guevara of Primrose Hill came across as quasi-normal in the TV leaders interviews. This week’s Tower of Babel debate, featuring seven party leaders, seems unlikely to bring Red Ed crashing to the ground. But it will offer Farage the chance of some welcome publicity and the opportunity to remind those “disgruntled Tories” just why they have turned their backs on Cameron.