Opinion: What, exactly, are the Tories up to?

With few statements forthcoming from the Conservatives about government policy on Iraq, taxation, immigration or NHS debt, I can't help wondering what the Tories' PR strategy actually is for 2007.

Although politics isn’t my usual remit for this column, it strikes me that the Opposition shows no sign of unleashing the sort of attack that so defined Labour’s strategy in the mid-1990s and effectively hounded the Tories out of office.

Indeed, according to senior broadcast and print editors, there is little sense of building the sort of media relationships that stood New Labour in good stead during its first years in power. More worryingly for Conservative candidates and voters, many of the same editors complain about a curious lack of availability of Tory voices to fill their columns and airwaves. In fact, broadcasters even say the Lib Dems are better at providing credible figures to speak on the issues of the day. Further, those newspapers whose souls are wedded to the Conservative cause lack any Cameron-style voice in their opinion columns.

One senior media figure was recently briefed that the media strategy for the run-up to a 2009 general election has been divided thus: Divorce – a total break with the image of the ‘nasty’ Tories and the Thatcher years; Vision – a broad enunciation of the principles of Cameronian Conservatism; and finally, as late as possible, the unveiling of Policies.

The danger is that belated policy, following an interminable period of all-too polite political debate, will drive the core Conservative vote of Middle England either to unpalatable alternatives, or simply to apathy. Currently, the Tories’ PR strategy seems to lack incisiveness and the ruthless attention to detail required to win over the media’s big players.

The fact is that nice guys without professional PR nasties behind them do not tend to win elections.

In Bernard Ingham and Alastair Campbell, Thatcher and Blair had behind them zealous spin doctors who understood every nuance of media management.

It may well be that in this day and age a Campbell-type figure is unacceptable. But one wonders whether without the sort of machine he created and controlled, any opposition is going to achieve the clarity of media voice needed to win.

The irony for the Conservatives themselves, led by an ex-PR man, is that even post-Campbell Labour relentlessly practises PR. The Tories must realise that subtle Brownite hints of ‘politics without spin’ are precisely that – good spin.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly a senior newspaper executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.

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