Much was made of Lynton Crosby’s appointment as a key election adviser to the Conservative party in 2013. Having cultivated an image as being one of the most successful political consultants of his generation, and one of the most ruthless, there was a high expectation in his ability to improve the strategic prospects of the Conservative Party. And it would have been a reasonable assumption to make. Having masterminded four consecutive general election victories for the Australian Liberal Party between 1996 and 2004, as well as succeeding in leading a Conservative candidate (Boris Johnson) to successive victories in the predominately Labour city of London, it is understandable why the Conservatives would seek to utilise his expertise.
‘The Master of the dark political arts’, ‘The Australian Karl Rove’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ are just some of the titles that Crosby has gained in a 20 year career in right-wing politics. Yet, as we enter the closing stages of a campaign that Crosby has been at the centre of planning for, we must ask the growing question: how successful has he been?
It is undoubtedly the case that Crosby has achieved significant political success in rebuilding the public reputation of the Conservative Party in the run-up to this election. Having been appointed when the Tories were in the nadir of their popularity as a result of a flat lining economy and internal coalition divisions, his skills were certainly required. And, indeed, he has delivered in giving focus to the Tory economic message and providing stark dividing lines between the Conservatives and Labour.
By focussing on key areas where the Conservatives still had a structural polling majority, Crosby has sought to utilise key Tory strengths to shore up the core vote and persuade fluctuating voters to remain faithful in the Government’s economic agenda. The political dividing line was not between uncaring austerity and moderate fiscal action (as Labour had argued), but rather between a Conservative Party who was able to implement a responsible economic policy and a Labour Party that was incapable of taking the tough actions required. Whether or not this narrative is true is irrelevant. It is the case, however, that he successfully shifted the terms on which austerity was debated in British politics. Yet, just one week short of this election campaign, he has of yet been unable to make the significant breakthrough that the Tories had hoped he would have. The polling is still unnervingly static for the Conservatives, with neither the Tories nor Labour being able to break out of the 33-35 per cent margin in sustained polls. Entering into this election with a successful economic record, and high personal ratings, David Cameron would have had much faith in Crosby’s promise of the “cross-over” point (when the Conservatives finally gain momentum over Labour). Suffice to say this point has not materialised.
This has partly been because of external factors that have structurally disadvantaged the Conservatives, such as the failure to pass boundary reform and UKIP solidifying around 10 percent of the national vote, but it is also because of the failure – of Crosby – to have developed the Conservative campaign beyond his pre-election strategy. Prior to the campaigns officially getting underway, the Conservatives had cultivated a message based on two principal factors: economic success and the personal popularity of David Cameron versus Ed Miliband. Both were important dividing lines, but to make them focal points in the election itself has been totally insufficient.
The Conservatives have simply failed to engage with the distinction that Labour has been able to make in the eyes of the public – between economic growth and living standards. By simply emphasising the success of the “long term economic plan” in statistics such as the rate of GDP growth and the fall in unemployment, the Tories failed to personalise their economic message. This was a key mistake, resulting in a Conservative message of economic triumphalism that seems totally disconnected from the experience of many ordinary people.
It was also an entirely flawed notion to focus so much attention on Ed Miliband. Of course public perception of him as a leader would not remain so systemically low. During any election campaign, the leader of the opposition gains a huge amount of public exposure and are presented with an opportunity to elevate their personal profile and political message.
Moreover, low expectations of Ed Miliband were already baked into the polls months before the election took place, and yet the Conservatives had failed to make a breakthrough. This means that there are millions of undecided voters in the election who have already made their mind up about Ed Miliband, yet still cannot bring themselves to vote Conservative. The more Crosby attacks a leader who is raising his personal profile, the more negative, and desperate, his own campaign appears.
Can Crosby defy the odds and deliver an election victory for the Tories? No. Can the Conservatives still govern after the election? Unlikely. But one thing is for certain. The strategy, so far, has not delivered.