Paul Baverstock: Howard's biggest problem is that floating voters just don't like him

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The Independent Online

The Conservatives have three fundamental problems to overcome if they are to win on 5 May. Michael Howard is not personally liked by the electorate, people like Conservative policy but don't trust Conservatives' motives, and the narrowcast success of the Conservative campaign to date is in danger of eradicating the differential turnout they need to win.

The Conservatives have three fundamental problems to overcome if they are to win on 5 May. Michael Howard is not personally liked by the electorate, people like Conservative policy but don't trust Conservatives' motives, and the narrowcast success of the Conservative campaign to date is in danger of eradicating the differential turnout they need to win.

Mr Howard has integrity and ability; he is intellectually brilliant, verbally dextrous, energetic and committed. But, for the purposes of this election campaign he has been a sole trader. The few Conservative peers he has - Ken Clarke, William Hague and Michael Portillo - while doing a bit, are, in political terms, either semi-detached, semi-retired, or semi-departed. The Shadow Cabinet's best public performers - David Davis, Theresa May, David Willetts and Tim Yeo - are either fighting desperate rearguard constituency actions or keeping a very low profile out of blame's way. David Cameron and George Osbourne, the likeable "young bucks", are doing a great job but remain relatively unknown outside Westminster and, I would argue, need to be protected for the near future.

Perhaps the modern British media age demands that the Conservative campaign be focused on Mr Howard personally. But personalising the Conservative campaign on its leader is a big mistake. The problem is this: Mr Howard is not a sympathetic figure and floating voters don't like him. It's as simple as that. Focus groups mention his time as an authoritarian Home Secretary in the last Conservative Government, they mention his association with Margaret Thatcher, they mention Ann Widdecombe! Whatever the reason, he is not able to communicate publicly the charm he displays in private.

Since assuming the leadership, Mr Howard has been a considerable asset to Conservatives in the Westminster village. For the first time in many years the party is united and disciplined. The party has credibility with the political commentators - no mean feat given the credibility gap Mr Howard inherited. But he is not an asset with the all-important floating voters.

And the campaign has to broaden its appeal. Hitherto, the Conservative Party campaign is replete with what pollsters call "permission statements": "I'm not a racist, but ..." Their use aims to establish the honourable motives of the speaker, and to establish unimpeachable intentions for whatever policy announcement follows, however extreme. But it's not working: people still don't believe that the Conservatives mean well.

When pollsters test the policies, without revealing from which party they originate, the Conservatives score well. When the party is revealed, the Conservatives' score plummets.

A month ago, the Conservatives had a big lead over Labour in the "certain to vote" polling. That lead has gone. The Labour vote has hardened in parallel with the Conservative campaign - immigration, asylum and Gypsies have certainly captured the electorate's attention. The problem is that unless the party can persuade the electorate that a velvet glove surrounds its iron hand, those who might otherwise have not voted on 5 May will hold their noses and vote Labour.

So Mr Howard now needs to share the campaigning load with colleagues, to broaden the campaign's appeal by concentrating on issues such as pensions, hospitals and schools, on which the Conservatives offer good policy, and he needs to convince the electorate that his motives are humane.

Paul Baverstock is a former director of communications and strategy for the Conservative Party

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