Tories woo their enemies

A new party-leader has brought a new strategy, says Andrew Grice
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The Independent Online

The Conservative Party has launched a long-overdue charm offensive with the media as well as the voters. Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, has ordered an end to the "bunker mentality" that epitomised the leadership of William Hague.

Mr Duncan Smith believes that since 1997, the Tories spent too much time preaching to the converted. Policies were designed to shore up support amongst Tory voters rather than to reach out to floating voters. Similarly, the media strategy that underpinned the policies was targeted at sympathetic newspapers. "Policy was often driven by Daily Mail leaders or what would get a good headline in a Tory paper," one former Tory official admitted.

The new, inclusive approach to the media was in evidence at last week's Conservative Party conference in Blackpool. The leadership abandoned the previous policy of briefing speeches by frontbenchers before they were made to a "White Commonwealth" of Tory-supporting papers. Last week, all papers were treated equally. "We even gave an advance of the leader's speech to the Mirror," an aide said proudly. As one Tory strategist put it: "We can't win an election with the Tory press – if there is such a thing anyway."

The new regime at Conservative Central Office, led by the party chairman David Davis, recognises that it was pretty crazy to regard the readers of non-Tory papers as the enemy. "Many public sector workers read The Guardian and The Independent, and we need to get our message across to them," said one senior Tory. Some Tory insiders blame the trench warfare between the Tories and much of the press on Amanda Platell, who was the party's head of news and media under Hague. She was seen by colleagues as suspicious of the press despite – or perhaps because of – her newspaper background. One Shadow Cabinet member recalled that when he asked her to put out a positive story to a sympathetic newspaper, Platell replied curtly: "There aren't any friendly newspapers."

Davis's team intends to launch a major offensive with regional newspapers and broadcasters, and a new unit will be set up at Central Office to combat the threat from the Liberal Democrats, by playing them at their own game.

The Tories also intend to woo the national broadcasters, who complained they were neglected by Hague's team in favour of the press. Nick Wood, a former political editor of the Express, who was Platell's deputy, has been promoted to her post and will spend more time with the broadcasters. The senior deputy head of media (lobby) is Mike Penning, a burly former soldier and ex-fireman who also acts as personal press secretary to Duncan Smith and masterminded his successful election campaign. The other deputy head of media is Andrew Scadding, who is responsible for broadcasting.

The other lesson the Tories have learnt from the Hague years is that political messages must be repeated ad nauseam if they are to filter through the media to the public. So we will be bored to death by the message that the Tories now care about public services. "If the politicians are starting to get bored with saying it, then the voters are only starting to hear it," said one Duncan Smith aide.

The biggest challenge facing the Tories' media team is that Duncan Smith is off the public's radar screen: according to the pollsters Mori, seven out of 10 people have virtually no impression of him at all.

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