The Conservatives are revamping their election strategy after a torrid week in which the party has slid in the polls and been accused of resorting to counter-productive negative attacks on the Labour leader, Ed Miliband.
In a sign of the new approach, David Cameron will announce a pledge to increase funding for the NHS by £8bn by 2020 and guarantee that all over-75s will get same-day access to a doctor. The party did not say how the pledge would be funded, but insisted its track record on the economy was proof it could deliver the extra money.
The commitment followed a promise to give workers three days’ paid leave for volunteering, which carried echoes of Mr Cameron’s vision of creating a Big Society.
A senior cabinet minister told The Independent the moves were part of a plan to enter a “positive” phase in the campaign which will highlight the Conservatives’ vision for five more years in power.
This will culminate in the Tories’ manifesto launch on Tuesday, which is expected to include at least one big new “retail” offering for voters. Their latest campaign pledge is to guaranteed an £8 billion increase in spending per year above inflation until 2020.
Strategists are hoping the change in approach will begin to turn the tide in the polls, which have seen Tory support edge downwards during a week dominated by Labour’s clampdown on “non-doms” and a row over personal attacks on Mr Miliband.
An analysis for The Independent today confirms the party is struggling to attract the voters it needs to win the election. The latest poll of polls compiled by Professor John Curtice puts Labour unchanged on 34 per cent with the Conservatives down two at 32 per cent. Ukip are on 15 per cent, the Liberal Democrats 9 per cent and the Green Party 4 per cent.
“The Lib Dems could still have a pivotal role in the next parliament. The latest polls point to Labour winning 302 seats – enough for Mr Miliband to form a government with 20 Lib Dems, and not need the help of 48 nationalists,” said Prof Curtice.
Meanwhile, the Tories are heading for just 262 seats, partly because of their failure to regain support from Ukip.
The senior Cabinet Minister denied that the new positive message marked a change of strategy. “It was important to highlight some of our economic achievements and some of the dangers presented by Labour,” they said. “Next week you will see optimism and a vision for the future.”
One Tory candidate admitted there was a “bit of a wobble” going on, while another senior party figure said personal attacks on Mr Miliband had backfired and added: “People really don’t like it – particularly women.”
Some Tories have been privately critical of the campaign so far, which they believe has not done enough to win over swing voters.
In a difficult week for the party, it was taken by surprise when Labour detailed plans to scrap the “non-dom” tax status enjoyed by more than 100,000 UK residents.
It counter-attacked by accusing Labour of confusion over the new policy, with one Tory HQ source insisting the party “got the better” of the row. However, a poll showed overwhelming public support for the Labour’s move.
An onslaught on Labour’s position on the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent backfired when Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, accused Mr Miliband of stabbing his brother in the back to win the party leadership. It forced Cabinet ministers to deny accusations they were stooping to negative tactics to undermine Labour.
A Tory candidate defending a Midland seat said: “It’s not my style. I never do personal stuff. Fallon can be abrasive – that is both a vice and a virtue.”
Another said: “Fallon’s attack on Miliband was over the top. It reinforces the impression that we’re just the nasty party. We do need to move onto more positive territory – I just hope we haven’t left it a bit late.”
But Mr Cameron defended the remarks yesterday, saying: “Really to say he stabbed his brother in the back is hardly adding to the political lexicon of Britain. It is a point that has been made by almost everybody else including many people in the Labour Party.”
The Prime Minister insisted he would continue to campaign over the choice between him and the Labour leader, adding: “This isn’t an election about whether he is decent chap or not. The question is who has got the right team and the right ideas to take the country forward?”
The party won broadly positive headlines yesterday for a commitment to cap most rail ticket increases at inflation for the next five years. But the promise to give workers three days’ paid leave for volunteering came under fire from the Institute of Directors.
It said: “Time off for charity work is a matter for managers and employees to discuss, not a target for heavy-handed government intervention.”
Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, added to confusion by suggesting that companies would not be forced to comply “if it causes problems”.
Amid Tory grassroots election jitters, Boris Johnson has consolidated his position as the activists’ choice as Mr Cameron’s successor. The Mayor of London was named by 26 per cent, widening his lead over Theresa May, the Home Secretary, who was preferred by 20 per cent.
The Independent has got together with May2015.com to produce a poll of polls that produces the most up-to-date data in as close to real time as is possible.
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