The Tories’ 35% strategy shows they know they cannot win outright in 2015

by Stephen Tall on July 12, 2013

George Osborne with Red Box, Budget 2012“The 35% Strategy”. The phrase was initially coined by Dan Hodges to decry the Labour leader’s soft-left leadership:

Forget the One Nation strategy, Ed Miliband is pursuing what is known within his inner circle as the 35 Per Cent Strategy. Come 2015, he thinks he can stagger over the line with 35 per cent of the vote.

Less commented on is that the Tories have also been adopting their own 35% strategy under the tutelage of strategist Lynton Crosby. Today’s news that George Osborne has ruled out any post-2015 tax rises to reduce the deficit — Vote Conservative in 2015 for no more tax rises, George Osborne says — is the latest piece of evidence.

Osborne is lining up the 2015 dividing lines. Just as Gordon Brown constantly tried to frame politics around the binary ‘Tory cuts v Labour investment’, so the Chancellor wants 2015 to be about ‘Tory welfare cuts v Labour/Lib Dem tax rises’. As he declared yesterday:

“That is my Budget book and I stand by it and I think this can be delivered through spending and savings both in welfare and in departments, and there is no need for tax rises to contribute to that fiscal consolidation.”

Those welfare cuts will almost certainly include stopping under 25s from claiming Housing Benefit and limiting child benefit to the first two children: two flawed and unfair Tory proposals the Lib Dems have repeatedly thwarted but which refuse to die.

As a way of solidifying the flaky Tory vote, it’s not such bad tactics. As a strategy for reaching out to those voters the Tories need to reach to win a majority in their own right, it’s doomed. As I suggested recently to ConservativeHome readers:

The polls consistently show the public wants the Government to get tougher on ‘scroungers’, so it makes electoral sense, yes? I’m doubtful. While each of his measures might individually be popular, taken together they suggest a Conservative Party that’s retreated to a core vote strategy, has given up on reaching out to the 40 per cent of the public it needs to persuade. And we know what happened when they tried that tack in 2001. And again in 2005.

The Tories cannot win the next election on 35% of the vote. The party scored 37% of the vote in 2010. Nothing that has happened in the past three years suggests the Tories want to woo those voters who last time opted for Labour or the Lib Dems.

So what is George Osborne playing at? Well, first he’s shoring up the party’s right flank, dog-whistling to those Ukip defectors who want to see the Government crack down on perceived welfare and immigration abuses. It’s a deeply defensive ploy.

And secondly, he’s putting down a marker for the next set of coalition negotiations: after all, that’s the best the Tories can hope for with their current ‘keep right’ strategy. If Osborne can win the public argument on further welfare crackdowns it will make it that much harder for the Lib Dems to continue rejecting them; at the very least the party may have to concede ground to the Tories on other issues (Trident, for-profit schools?).

In sum, it’s classic Osborne. A tactically clever move which seeks to shift the debate on welfare further to the right. But it’s also the clearest sign yet that the Tories know their 35% strategy means they cannot win outright in 2015.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.