Opinion: Bush victory gives Tories mixed message

Conservative leader Michael Howard reportedly refused to send his congratulations to George W Bush last week - he should now refuse to listen to those in his party who think the Tories should follow the Republicans' extreme right-wing agenda.

I'm amazed at the number of conservative columnists who seem to think that all the Tory leader needs to do is lurch to the right and the voters will come flocking back to the party. What they conveniently forget is how Bush got into the White House in the first place - 'compassionate conservatism'. Remember?

And Bush won re-election because he was the incumbent. All the stuff about faith, family and flag was relevant, but not here in the UK. For a start, a high proportion of Americans go to church, and many own a gun.

What Tory strategists should be doing is looking at how the message was relayed to the American public, not so much what the message was. The first and most obvious lesson is to keep the message simple: you knew exactly where you stood with Bush and didn't have a clue what John Kerry really thought.

Howard may be tempted to tap into the anti-war sentiment, but that would be a grave mistake. The flip-flop charge against Kerry worked very well for the Republicans and Labour is planning to make the same charge against Howard.

The one thing that Tory election guru Lynton Crosby would have noticed was the negativity of the Republican campaign. Crosby knows all about negative campaigning from his experience in Australia, and he knows it works. The public always say they hate negativity, so the trick is to make it look like it's your opponents who are being negative. That's why when Crosby was appointed, Labour was quick to tell the media about his campaigning record Down Under. Quite rightly, all Howard cared about was Crosby's winning record.

The Tory leader should be no different to Tony Blair in supporting any campaign tactic that will help him win. The PM may pretend not to like negative campaigns, but it's just a pretence. The Tories should also not be fooled into thinking that just because some pundits have said the state of the economy didn't matter in the US elections it won't matter here. Even Alan Milburn knows that Labour's economic record is worth fighting on.

But Labour won't just be trotting out the mantra on employment and interest rates. The emphasis will be on the Tories' economic record. It will be wholly negative.

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