OPINION: Stick to your strategy or pay the price

If I had been writing this column in September, it would have been tinged with gloom. The new Prime Minister seemed to have successfully distanced himself completely from the past ten years of Blair.

Vaizey: ‘Brown had never wanted an early election'
Vaizey: ‘Brown had never wanted an early election'

In fact, the only element of Blairism that remained was the Teflon cloak that Brown had seamlessly transferred to himself.

So what went wrong? As one Blairite MP said to me: ‘Gordon got his tactics just right, he just forgot about the strategy.’ Brown had never wanted an early election, but his high opinion poll ratings and favourable press meant he started to flirt with the idea. But because it was never his original strategy, he lost control. He allowed his advisers to talk up the prospect of an election to the extent that it became, in the media’s mind, a certainty.  At that point, he had boxed himself in, and should have gone for it.  

What are the lessons from all this? First, stick to your original strategy. Second, if you are going to change it, change it quickly and decisively, and for the right reasons.  Third, don’t ever allow the media to believe one thing when you intend to do another.  They are not very forgiving.

If this were not bad enough, Labour have fallen back on Plan B – to try to gerrymander the next election. Government ministers can be heard loudly complaining that Lord Ashcroft, a major Tory donor, is trying to ‘buy’ the next election. This is because Lord Ashcroft is adopting the entirely sensible strategy of supporting financially Tory candidates in key marginal seats.

Quite how this is meant to ‘buy the election’ is beyond me. A Labour MP in a marginal seat has several weapons in his armoury. First, Labour wins more seats with fewer votes – it gained 93 more English seats than the Conservatives in England, despite polling fewer votes in the 2005 general election. It has also given its MPs a £10,000 ‘communication allowance’, on top of the £28,000 office allowance they already receive. They are paid £60,000 a year so don’t need another job. And they are able to correspond regularly with their constituents, and receive favourable local press, simply by being the local MP.

Add to this the huge support from the trades unions that Labour receives, and one wonders what the party is bleating about. Perhaps it should simply be more honest and make it illegal to stand as a Conservative candidate.

Anyway, as any good PRO will tell you, no amount of money can compensate if you have the wrong message. Or no strategy. 

Ed Vaizey is a Conservative MP and was formerly a PR consultant.

Charlie Whelan is on holiday.

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