Grant Shapps: No coalition next time... a man who thinks the future's blue
Tory chairman Grant Shapps reveals his plans for total victory
Andrew Grice has been Political Editor of The Independent since 1998. He was previously Political Editor of The Sunday Times, where he worked for 10 years, and he has been a Westminster-based journalist since 1982. His column, Inside Politics, appears in The Independent each Saturday.
Sunday 13 January 2013
We need to be the everyone everywhere party," smiles Grant Shapps, as he contemplates a colour-coded constituency map of Britain on the wall of his office at Conservative campaign headquarters. He spends many hours looking at it. There is a lot of blue, because the Tories are the largest party. But not enough. His task as party chairman is to turn some of the red Labour and yellow Liberal Democrat seats blue at the 2015 election, to deliver David Cameron an overall majority.
Mr Shapps admits borrowing his "everyone, everywhere" slogan from the mobile phone company EE (Everything Everywhere) but it sums up his strategy for 2015. "There are no no-go areas," he says. That means appealing way beyond the Tories' natural heartlands, winning over voters from all classes and areas, including the North, and wooing ethnic minorities.
It sounds hugely ambitious at a time of austerity. But Mr Shapps is an incurable, bouncy optimist. His face may remind us of Tony Blair in his Bambi phase, but he is a tireless and ruthless attack dog who sinks his teeth into Labour at every opportunity. In an hour-long interview, he mentions Ed Miliband much more than Mr Cameron. Tory insiders say he has given a harder edge to the party's campaigns on issues such as state benefits since Mr Cameron installed him as chairman last September. He is also happier than most Tory ministers to snap at the Lib Dems' heels.
Mr Shapps dismisses as "completely and utterly untrue" the Lib Dems' claim that the Tories cannot be trusted to build a fair society. "We agree [with the Lib Dems] on the big fundamental issues like deficit reduction. There are vast areas where actually we don't see eye to eye at all," he says. He has a list of measures the Lib Dems have blocked, the starting point for the Tories' manifesto in 2015.
"We are bubbling with ideas," he says. "There are a string of things we want to do and can't do because we are in coalition. It is a compromise." He cites reforms to the European Union and European Court of Human Rights and "radical and aggressive" measures to help businesses grow.
The Tory chairman concedes that in 2015, his party will not be able to re-run its 2010 campaign scare stories that a hung parliament would create instability. "Everyone would accept we have created a remarkably stable government from a coalition. We all thought for years that would be impossible," he admits. Inevitably, there is a but: "I am convinced we could go further and faster and do better things for this country, a better future, a better economy if we governed on our own as Conservatives."
Half of the 40 seats the Tories will target are held by the Lib Dems – hardly a recipe for cordial relations inside the Coalition. It is part of the Tories' "40-40 strategy" to gain 40 and hold 40 of their most vulnerable seats. Mr Shapps is confident he has "a much more sophisticated" approach than Labour, saying its hit list of 106 constituencies is based on a "blunt" mathematical calculation. The Tories have taken greater account of other factors, such as changing demographics, local issues and polling.
His battle plan, "Road to 2015", predicts that the Tories will benefit from "an incumbency advantage" by starting with more MPs than Labour. Being the sitting MP used to be regarded as worth a mere 0.5 per cent in the days when some made only occasional visits to their constituency.
Today most MPs are glorified councillors and social workers too, taking up constituents' problems daily, and Mr Shapps reckons the incumbency factor could now be worth up to 10 per cent. He predicts "a plus" from the "more bolshie" 148 new Tory members elected in 2010, who often argue they put their constituents' interests before those of party whips.
Mr Shapps is happy to rattle off the main themes of his party's 2015 campaign: "We are in a global race. Britain is on the right track, don't go back. Don't give the keys to the guys who crashed the car in the first place. Do you want to go through all this pain again?"
He does not believe any single demographic group holds the key to the election, but says: "I am looking for strivers, people who are aspirational, people who are attracted by the simple Conservative message that we are on the side of hard-working families who want to get on in life."
The Tory chairman laughs off Labour's claim that the Government's 1 per cent cap on benefit rises shows that the "nasty party" is back, and defends the Tory advert showing a benefit claimant on a sofa. "It didn't mention scroungers or skivers," he says. The only "cruel" thing about the welfare system is that it traps people on benefits. "This is a very compassionate party, tackling the big challenges of the day," he says.
Mr Shapps insists last week's arrival of Lynton Crosby, the Australian political strategist dubbed the Wizard of Oz, to run the Tories' 2015 election, does not signal a hardline stance on issues such as immigration, as in Mr Crosby's 2005 campaign when Michael Howard led the party. He says the Australian will deliver a strategy agreed by Mr Cameron, George Osborne and Mr Shapps himself.
"We craft the message. Lynton will make sure we stick to it," he says, admitting the Tories were not disciplined enough in 2010. "Lynton Crosby did not come in to dog-whistle. It would surprise many people but he has a very positive view. He is the first person to say: 'Let's not go there'," he insists.
The Conservative chairman also denies that Mr Cameron is trying to wriggle out of televised debates with the other main party leaders in 2015. "They enabled lots of people to engage with the campaign at one time [in 2010]," he says. "There is a role if they don't dominate the campaign so that what is going on locally ceases to matter and the rest of the manifesto message gets lost." He hints at a series of debates starting months rather than weeks before polling day.
But he has no intention of allowing Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party leader, to take part. Mr Shapps argues that Ukip's current supporters are worried about welfare, the economy and immigration as well as Europe. His message to them will be: "Vote Ukip and you will let in a Labour MP and put Ed Miliband into Downing Street."
Mr Shapps had a baptism of fire after moving to his high-profile role last autumn, with embarrassing media reports about his alter ego, Michael Green, the pen name he used when he published business books.
What lessons did he draw? "That we need business people in public life who have done something in life. We have plenty of academics in Parliament like Ed Miliband.
"When I stand up and make a speech about people working hard, I am not talking about what I read in a textbook at Harvard. This is my life. I started a printing company 22 years ago, creating jobs sustained to this day. I put my house on the line twice to expand it.
"My business experience included writing some business books under a pen name because my primary interest in life was going into politics."
Mr Shapps is unrepentant. "The fuss about it shows the way we are going, that you can only do one thing in life, that it is OK to be in politics if you are Ed Miliband and all you have done has been in politics.
"So regrets? No. Not at all. I am proud to have a business background."
On the spot: six questions
Where was the last place you went for dinner?
"China Red, our local Chinese restaurant. Other favourites include Nandos and Subway."
What was the last album you bought/listened to?
"I think the concept of buying an album and listening to one artist for 12 tracks is old fashioned. I prefer online services like last.fm where the playlist is tailored around music you like."
What was the last book you read?
"Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman."
What was the last gig/concert you attended?
What was the last sporting event you attended?
"My son's football match."
What was the last film you saw?
"Parental Guidance, with the kids over Christmas."
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