Anxious Tories are urging David Cameron to change the tone of the party’s election campaign by following the example of Franklin D Roosevelt, who won multiple White House terms during the Great Depression with the upbeat song Happy Days Are Here Again.
Amid concerns that the Tories are dancing to a downbeat tune set by Ukip in relentlessly warning that Ed Miliband offers chaos, the prime minister is being told that the party performs best when it embodies an optimistic future.
“Our campaign is dispiriting, I am sure a little bit of David dies every time he has to speak in such negative language,” one former minister said. “Optimism always wins. Pessimism dances to Ukip’s tune. We should be more confident.”
The warnings are being issued as the prime minister prepares to adopt what aides say is a “show-not-tell” approach at the seven-strong television election debate on Thursday night, to highlight the key negative theme of the Tory campaign.
This is that the “cacophony of voices” at the debate shows the chaos that would ensue if the Conservatives fail to win an overall majority or at least are not the largest party in a hung parliament. Cameron has said Labour could be held to ransom by the SNP in such circumstances.
Downing Street had encouraged the inclusion of so many party leaders in the debate, notably by championing the Green leader Natalie Bennett, to create what one aide described as a “democratic bore-athon” that might dilute the impact of Miliband and the Ukip leader Nigel Farage.
But aides now believe the debate, which will see Miliband appear on the same platform for the first time with the SNP first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, provides an opportunity to highlight their message to voters about the dangers of failing to ensure that the Tories are at least the largest party in a hung parliament.
The Downing Street calculations come as senior Tories reflect on the first few days of campaigning, which have shown the decisive impact of the party’s Australian campaign director Lynton Crosby. He has crafted two core messages that Tories – from the prime minister to the most humble first-time parliamentary candidate – are being told to repeat ad nauseam. These are that the Tories are delivering a long-term economic plan and the party offers competence, in contrast to what is claimed would be chaos under Labour.
Eyebrows were raised when the prime minister reinforced this message by name-checking Miliband three times on the steps of Downing Street on Monday after his return from Buckingham Palace, to warn of the dangers of allowing the Labour leader through “that black door” into government.
“I thought that was a bit dodgy,” said one Tory who is defending a marginal seat, adding: “Nobody has brought that up on the doorstep.”
The internal unease about the negative campaigning came after the Tory campaign had a bumpy start in the wake of a weekend YouGov/Sunday Times poll that gave Labour a four-point lead over the Conservatives – by 36% to 32%. “I took the bullets out of the gun because I was about to shoot myself,” the Tory defending a marginal seat said of the poll. “I thought: ‘This isn’t the plan.’”
But nerves were calmed as other polls gave the Conservatives a lead, suggesting the two main parties are still tied. Tories, even those in the centre of the party, reflected that the Crosby messages appear to be hitting home. They caution, however, that the prime minister must return to a positive message as the campaign progresses.
One senior figure said the Tory poster, which depicted a childlike Miliband in the breast pocket of Alex Salmond, had been effective. A former minister was initially wary of focusing on the SNP. “I am surprised that the Alex Salmond stuff has cut through, but people have noticed that,” the Tory said. “Alex Salmond is solidifying the Tory vote.”
The former minister, who complained that the Tories’ “big society” message of the 2010 election was difficult to define and therefore impossible to sell on the doorstep, believes the party has a clear message that is achieving cut-through. “Constitutional purists will tut and say using the backdrop of No 10 to slag off your opponents is inappropriate, but actually it works.”
There are calls for the prime minister to ensure that the campaign adopts a more positive tone, at least in the final stages. Tim Montgomerie, the founder of the ConservativeHome website who has been highly critical of the “Crosbyisation” of the party, tweeted that he was “liking the positive Tory campaign posters”. He tweeted a picture of four posters that highlight the Tory record in creating 1,000 jobs a day, 2.2m apprenticeships, offering security to pensioners and ensuring more people are in work than ever before.
No 10 sources argue that warning about Miliband is only one part of what they describe as a broad campaign that is very clear-eyed about the positive things the prime minister is offering. They highlight the party’s offers to first-time buyers, to parents and to pensioners.
But one senior Tory said Cameron should go further and take inspiration from Franklin D Roosevelt, who won four successive US presidential elections – during the Great Depression and into the second world war – through positive campaigning: “What Cameron has got to do is say: ‘We have had this turnaround. We are not claiming it is a massive breakthrough but it has got better.’ It is a Roosevelt without using his theme song, Happy Days Are Here Again. People have been through a hell of a lot of pain – sacrifices have been made – but things are going to get better.”
This article was written by Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Thursday 2nd April 2015 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010