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The Wheels Have Fallen Off the Conservative Party's Campaign

24/04/2015 15:49 BST | Updated 24/06/2015 10:59 BST

The failure of the Conservatives to move up a gear or two when the election campaign began has been striking. This is a party which in recent years has presided over some of the most encouraging headline growth figures in the world and which during the last parliament successfully laid the blame for the UK's financial crisis at the door of the Labour Party. Moreover, having acknowledged that it ran a weak campaign in 2010, the Conservative leadership was determined to do better this time around. It brought in the Australian political strategist, Lynton Crosby, to ensure that the party would run a focused campaign to capitalise on voters' greater trust in the Conservatives' economic competence and in the prime ministerial stature of the party leader, David Cameron, who consistently polls well ahead of his Labour rival, Ed Miliband.

The UK's nasty party once again

On the evidence thus far, Mr Cameron and Mr Crosby are failing badly. Ahead of the election campaign, the party closed an opinion poll gap with the Labour Party, but it has signally failed to move ahead. However one defines campaign success, it is difficult to argue that the Conservative campaign is succeeding. First, the party has next to no chance of securing an overall majority that would allow it to govern alone. This will cause significant unease among the party's many restive parliamentarians. Second, even the prospect of governing as a minority single-party administration or in coalition also looks increasingly unlikely. The expected swing to the Conservatives has not transpired--the party's campaign appears to have hindered rather than encouraged it--and the closer we get to the election, the more unrealistic a sharp turnaround in voter sentiment appears. Third, the party is set to win a lower share of both votes and parliamentary seats than it did in 2010.

The reasons for the Conservatives' failure to move ahead of Labour are numerous. They have failed to capitalise on the issues on which they are strong; they have not managed to shore up their position in areas where they are weak; and they have been complacent in their approach towards Labour. Perhaps most damagingly, the party has played to voters' perceptions of it as a "nasty party" (a phrase made famous by the current Conservative home secretary, Theresa May, in 2002). Its campaign has been surprisingly and counter-productively negative. Its attempts to demonise Mr Miliband both lowered the tone of the campaign and made it easier for the Labour leader to provide voters with an upside surprise as to his competence and affability. Mr Miliband's composed campaigning has been one of the most important factors. Although many voters still doubt his suitability to lead the country, his measured performance has made the Conservatives' claims about him look shrill and unconvincing.

Playing with fire in Scotland

The Conservatives have gone on to the focus their negative campaigning on the Scottish National Party (SNP). This is no less counter-productive an approach; it risks exacerbating already heightened concerns about the integrity of the UK. The Conservatives' suggestion is that a Labour-led government would be reliant on SNP support in parliament and so would be forced to offer concessions on economic policy across the UK (the SNP is further to the left than Labour) as well as on greater autonomy for Scotland. The Conservatives have called on Labour to rule out any form of co-operation with the SNP after the election. This is a potentially dangerous route for the party to take, constitutionally speaking. The SNP is set to see its representation in parliament surge; it is likely to be the only unambiguous winner in this election. This is down to an increase in political engagement and activism among Scottish voters, which goes well beyond secessionism and reflects the region's more left-leaning political culture.

For as long as Scotland stays within the UK--a core principle of Conservative Party politics--then it is a statement of the politically obvious that a surge in SNP representation in parliament will lead to an increase in SNP influence on policy across the UK, particularly in circumstances where neither of the two largest parties enjoys a majority. For the Conservatives to demonise SNP politicians--and by extension those who have voted for them--as being unfit to participate in governing the UK is to invite a further intensification of Scottish nationalism, which in turn will entrench SNP power, pushing the constitutional status of Scotland further towards the centre of UK political life. As if this weren't enough, on April 24th the Conservatives took the unprecedented step of launching an English manifesto. These are moves that cynically risk long term constitutional damage for short-term electoral advantage.

Relying on "shy Tories"

The Economist Intelligence Unit continues to expect a swing towards the Conservatives between now and the election. However, we have already acknowledged that the likelihood has diminished sharply of the swing being sufficient to deliver the Conservatives first place in the election, let alone a sufficient number of seats to form even a minority government (relying on the support of their current coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, as well as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland). There has been a corresponding increase in the likelihood of either a Labour-led administration (relying on the support of both the SNP and the Liberal Democrats) or a completely hung parliament in which no politically feasible combination of parties can muster a majority. Time is running out for the Conservatives; on current trajectories, they will not be the first-placed party, let alone in a position to form a government.

Nevertheless, there are precedents for a last-minute swing towards the Conservatives, pushing them beyond what seemed like settled levels of opinion poll support. Polling organisations have worked hard to control their results for this so-called "shy Tory" effect, but there are at least three reasons to believe it may resurface in this election. First, the fragmentation of voter preferences has greatly complicated the pollsters' task by creating novel constituency-level dynamics that are difficult to control. Second, the combination of strong economic data and the Conservatives' failure to dispel their image as a nasty party creates ideal conditions for the shy Tory effect, which typically involves individual voters choosing the Conservatives for self-interested economic reasons but being reluctant to admit this outside the privacy of the polling booth. And third, Labour continues to struggle with the leadership issue. Although Mr Miliband has outperformed relative to expectations, polls suggest that close to one-third of Labour supporters would prefer Mr Cameron as prime minister.