When you think of David Cameron, the Tories want you to think of a man with a plan. When you think of Ed Miliband, they want you to think of a weathervane.
Downing Street sources credit this new approach to Lynton Crosby, the tough-talking Australian strategist Cameron lured with a £500,000 deal to run the Tories’ 2015 campaign. He outlined the new message to Cameron’s political Cabinet on Tuesday.
Crosby doesn’t mince his words. In a straight-talking presentation, he told them that if the Election was held now, the Tories would probably lose. But, no worries, he said – it isn’t for another 17 months, so there’s plenty of time to get battle-ready.
As the Secretaries of State gulped their coffees, Crosby emphasised they needed to always talk about Cameron as a strong leader with a long-term plan. He told them that his polling was picking up, that voters were beginning to think of Labour as opportunistic – and that to win they needed to sharpen this contrast.
Afterwards, Ministers griped that they couldn’t read the type on Crosby’s slides as it was too small. But apart from that, the message of the presentation was loud, clear and well received. One of those present says Crosby made a convincing case that ‘people want a sense that you know where you are going and that you are not just endlessly tactical’.
Crosby wants to stop the Tories from being sidetracked by Ed Miliband’s cost of living agenda. He warned them that the issue doesn’t have the potency with the public that the Westminster Village thinks it does. So stop being dragged on to it by Labour and the Press was Crosby’s order.
Cameron himself has been trying to spread this message to Tory backbenchers. At a sandwich lunch at No 10 on Tuesday for a select group of Tory MPs, the PM cautioned that if the party got sucked into a bidding war on the cost of living, it would lose the Election.
Cameron urged MPs to hold their nerve, stressing that the economy was turning round, and that the party will get the credit come polling day.
The sandwich lunch was part of a charm offensive with his party, softening them up in good time for the European Parliament elections in May. One of the PM’s Cabinet supporters concedes that it is ‘a racing certainty we’ll get monstered by UKIP in the European elections’.
If that happens, it will be the first time the Tories have come third in a national election and will prompt panic among backbenchers. So No 10 is trying to put as much credit in the bank with MPs as possible, which is why they were also invited to No 10 for bacon rolls last Friday morning before the debate on the EU referendum bill.
For now, the Tory Party is chipper. Labour’s inept response to the Co-op bank scandal has boosted morale. One Tory Minister predicts that this will turn into ‘a party funding scandal as much as a banking scandal’.
But Labour is furious. Those close to Ed Miliband shake with rage when they discuss this issue, accusing the Tories of the ‘lowest form of politics’. Labour sources point to a dossier on Crosby that they’ve been sent by their counterparts in the Australian Labor party. They claim that it will help them rebut any attacks.
The Tory leadership, though, thinks it is back in the political game. One of Cameron’s closest allies declares that ‘for the first time since conference, we have the political momentum’.
The challenge for the Tories is to keep this going through Cameron’s trip to China and the Autumn Statement. If they can do that, it will be a Happy Christmas at Chequers. But if they can’t, it will be a nervous New Year for the Prime Minister.
When the Prime Minister heads to China next month, he’ll be taking an apprentice with him – Karren Brady.
The businesswoman, left, who is also a star on the BBC’s The Apprentice, will lead the small business delegation.
Cameron will be taking the largest ever group of small businessmen and women on a Prime Ministerial trip.
He wants to encourage more small firms to export, believing this is key to the country’s competitiveness.
He’s also keen to show that grand foreign visits do not just benefit big, established companies.
Brady’s presence alongside Cameron and various Cabinet Ministers shows how excited the Tories are by her political potential. It is the latest in a line of opportunities that they have given her.
She introduced George Osborne’s party conference speech this year and has been made the Prime Minister’s small business champion.
If – as many in the party hope – she goes for a seat in 2015, the Tories will tell her she’s hired.
Nick Clegg last week made a pitch for TV debates at the next Election. The three main party leaders shared a platform at the launch of Prince Charles’s volunteering campaign Step Up 2 Serve – and Clegg declared that the next time you would see them on the same stage would be at the first Election debate.
Labour is convinced he is trying to dodge the showdowns. They claim they’ve agreed to the ‘same format, same number, same time’ as in 2010, but still the Tories won’t sign up. I’m told that if the debates do happen, there will be far fewer than in 2010.
The Ramada Inn in Hatfield might not be the world’s most glamorous venue, but it was where Lib Dem MPs met last week to discuss campaigning for the next Euro elections.
This poll is the biggest electoral test for the junior coalition partner so far – and many in the party hierarchy are fearful that it could be disastrous. One senior figure frets that they could lose all their MEPs in next year’s poll.
But the mood was lightened by the Lib Dem chief whip Don Foster’s awards. Worst photo-op went to Julian Huppert, the professorial Cambridge MP who has a penchant for being snapped on his bike.
But the prize for leader’s pet didn’t go to a Lib Dem. It was won by Tory MP Peter Bone for his constant criticism of Nick Clegg, which – albeit unintentionally – reminds Lib Dems what their leader is stopping the Tories from doing.