Election `97: Tory battles echo past strategies

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The following are extracts from the interview with the senior Tory strategist discussing the party's battleplan for the 1992 election - a plan which bears remarkable similarities to the present campaign

Q. It's Labour's view that they lost the election with your "tax bombshell" stuff.

A. Yes. I think they did. It goes even further back than that. We knew they had a very good stratagem, put simply - the Tories have failed, it's time for a change. It's very compelling. But we came up with something even more compelling - it's not time to change, it could be worse, you can't trust Labour. And we stressed higher tax, both because people don't like paying it, but also because in a recession people sense that higher taxes are not a brilliant way out.

It's usually best to ignore things if you possibly can. We deliberately ran a totally negative campaign from October '91 onwards - and we never departed from it.

Q. So, did you have any deviations from your chosen policy? Tax, tax, tax and nothing else.

A. No. We had one small wobble. After the shadow Budget we had a few dangerous days, where we started responding - which was a terrible mistake.

Q. You shouldn't respond to your opponent?

A. No. Not at all. Because you want to control the agenda. And our agenda was tax. I'm modestly proud of the fact that when people came out of the polling booths and listed their reasons for voting Tory, the first was Kinnock and the second was tax. We put it there.

Q. You scarcely went for Kinnock.

A. We did one vicious section in a broadcast. One real personal attack on a scale that had never been done before. It was really, really nasty.

Q. Do you regret it ?

A. Oh no, not at all. We were saying you can't trust him, he changes his mind all the time.

Q. But he's in a no-win [situation]. If he'd stuck with old policies, you'd have murdered him. But you also attack him for changing them.

A. Yes. That's the price he had to pay. The vice of his virtues, if you like. You see, I think the public was logical. They saw what Labour was saying about tax, and they didn't want to pay it, and they also thought it would do them no good.

You must remember this, we went into this election in a different situation from any Tory campaign since the war.

The message is normally [that] the Tories have delivered prosperity, don't throw it away. But this time, it wasn't possible to say that. The Tories had completely fucked it up. It was disaster-time. So the only thing we could say was - it might be worse. Of course people in the party were tempted, they wobble, they said all the time can't you stress this government's positive achievements? But I'm pleased to say that John Major, Patten and Maurice Saatchi were all against that. And stayed against it. We stayed negative from beginning to end.

Q. I know what Labour feared. What I'd like to know is, what was yours?

A. I'm not going to tell you.

Q. Could Labour have done something which would have frightened you?

A. Oh yes. Oh yes. In fact we worked out a scenario of how they might attack us and what we would do.

Q. What was it?

A. I won't tell you that. I can't.

Q. It was an aspect of your economic failures ... ?

A. That's right. [Labour will] never win till they convince people they can handle the economy better than us. You must never hesitate to find glee in bad economic news.

You see, I think Labour lost because they weren't logical. That's why I do this work - I love it because it's so logical. Quite intelligent people write about these matters and yet they don't see that most political campaigns are insufficiently ruthless in logic. They are not simple or clear. You can get one thing across. It must not be dealt with in an unclear or sloppy way. Whereas Labour, you know, tried to have it both ways. They hadn't thought the logic of it through.

Q. I couldn't work out if John Major's campaign was deliberately off all on its own.

A. No, I'm interested you say that. It wasn't meant to be. But, again, that may be what came across.

Q. The press were in agony.

A. Well, how do you think he felt? It's so awful for him.

Q. Doesn't he enjoy it ?

A. You must be mad.

Q. Your problem with John Major presumably was you'd chosen to run a negative campaign, And he couldn't be seen to be running it.

A. Precisely. So, it was hard to know what to do with him. But I think the last week was important. The Union.

Q. That was a political instinct.

A. Entirely. And entirely his. The Conservatives are always comfortable defending the flag.