Labour supporters should pay close attention to Oliver Dowden’s recent speech

The top source has revealed how the Conservatives are going to fight the next election

John Rentoul
Saturday 19 March 2022 13:55 GMT
British Minister without Portfolio and Conservative Party Co-Chairman Oliver Dowden speaks at the Conservative Party Spring Conference in Blackpool
British Minister without Portfolio and Conservative Party Co-Chairman Oliver Dowden speaks at the Conservative Party Spring Conference in Blackpool (Reuters)

A senior Conservative source has disclosed the party’s battle plan for the next election to The Independent. The aim is to draw dividing lines between the Tories and Labour on net zero, national security and cancel culture. It means portraying the Tories as green but not dogmatic, and depicting Keir Starmer as kowtowing to “the Corbynistas”.

I can reveal this plan because it was contained in a speech delivered by Oliver Dowden, the Tory party chair, to the party’s spring conference in Blackpool on Friday. Dowden is one of Boris Johnson’s secret weapons. He was one of the three mid-ranking ministers who wrote a joint article in The Times backing Johnson at an early stage of the 2019 leadership contest – “The Tories are in deep peril. Only Boris Johnson can save us.” The other authors were Rishi Sunak and Robert Jenrick. All three joined the cabinet when Johnson became prime minister.

He is not well-known, because he is mild-mannered and reasonable. But he is also a formidable politician, having learnt his skills as deputy chief of staff in David Cameron’s No 10. Part of his speech in Blackpool deliberately played up his unassuming persona: “For me, the privet hedges of suburbia are the privet hedges of a free people.” That is a sentence of such deadpan comic genius that it must have been the product of a bet.

But other parts of the speech laid out the Tory plan for the next election with shocking clarity. His appointment as Tory chair at the last reshuffle was an important one. Johnson was putting him in charge of the election campaign, and this speech set out how he is approaching the task.

First, the Tories are going to use the prime minister’s power to decide the date of the election to the full. The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill is expected to receive the royal assent next week, repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and restoring the prime minister’s right to choose when to hold elections.

It seemed strange, therefore, that the only headlines generated by Dowden’s speech were for his declaration that the local elections in May mark the start of “our two-year election campaign”. An election in May 2024 was prescribed by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act: he seemed to be saying that the first thing Johnson would do with his newly restored power was not to use it.

I suspect that Keir Starmer knows that this is a double bluff. Or that the Conservatives speak with forked tongue: at about the same time Dowden was addressing the Tory grassroots by the seaside, David Canzini, an ally of Lynton Crosby who now has Dowden’s old job in No 10, was telling special advisers to prepare for an election in the autumn of next year. May 2024 remains the most likely date for the next election, but as of next week Johnson has the option of an early dash to the polls if he thinks it is in his interest.

Whenever the election comes, though, Dowden knows that the Tories will be deprived of three advantages they enjoyed last time. They will not be fighting to “get Brexit done”; their opponent will not be Jeremy Corbyn; and their leader will not be the great campaigner that Johnson was last time. Either Johnson will lead them, a damaged and diminished warrior, or someone else will, who won’t be as effective as Johnson was last time.

Hence Dowden told Tory representatives: “When that general election comes, it’s going to look much more like the campaign of 2015 than that of 2019. So we’re going to have to fight this one seat by seat, promise delivered by promise delivered, doorstep by doorstep.”

The critical parts of his speech were those in which he set out the dividing lines with Labour. This is Gordon Brown’s style of politics: to occupy the centre ground and draw a line between you and your opponent that defines your opponent as marginal and extreme.

Dowden had one good joke about Starmer’s non-aggression pact with the Liberal Democrats: “He has more faith than any Liberal Democrat that Ed Davey is the path to government.” But Dowden’s main purpose was to draw lines between the Tories and Labour. This included a bold attempt to triangulate on green policies: “The British people want to see a bit of conservative pragmatism, not net zero dogma,” he said. “We will get to net zero. We will save the planet. We just don’t want Vladimir Putin taking it over while we are doing it.”

This may seem like a rather obvious attempt to head off the threat from Nigel Farage, who claims to be setting up a campaign for a referendum on net zero, but Labour knows that it cannot afford to be painted as the party of green zealotry. Everyone wants to save the planet, but the median voter doesn’t want to pay for it.

The other themes of the Tory attack will be a relentless campaign to remind people that Starmer wanted Corbyn – “that Nato-opposing Putin apologist” – to be prime minister. Dowden seems to think that is more important than reminding people that Starmer “would have left us in Brexit limbo”, although that is obviously an important message for some voters.

Then there is “cancel culture”. An absurd phrase which, if it means anything, cannot be applied to Starmer, but it works as a prompt to remind a lot of voters of things they feel uneasy about. Dowden said of the Labour leader: “He’s frightened to defend women’s rights or to protect our heritage from vandals because he fears he would then be cancelled.” It is no use Starmer trying to contradict this stuff: he has to fight it on an emotional level.

I think he has a chance, because the Conservatives are losing their advantage on a number of “emotional” issues. Opinion polls suggest Labour is more trusted on tax, immigration and crime. But it is obvious that Dowden is thinking hard about how to turn that around.

Any Labour supporter who wants to understand how to fight the election should read, re-read and think hard about this speech.

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