The Conservative tactic of making the final two weeks of the UK election about the dangers posed to England by a Labour government supported by the votes of the SNP has one goal and one goal alone: win back the voters that the Tories have lost to Ukip over the past five years.
According to a YouGov poll released on Tuesday evening, one in three Ukip voters fears the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, would share power with the SNP after the election.
Earlier this week, David Cameron claimed that a Labour-SNP deal would be a “match made in hell”. Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, hit back, saying that “only Ukip will stand up for the interests of English voters”.
These are crude instincts. Both leaders are interviewing to be England’s last line of defence by pitting rivalries between the union’s nations one against the other. Us versus them.
They may well be playing a dangerous game, but crucially to the election outcome both are targeting the same voters.
The chances of tilting a scale that is increasingly unfavourable to the PM’s chances are slim, and this is possibly the Tories’ last roll of the dice – it isn’t Cicero, yet it could still work.
Let’s start with some historical context.
Since the last election, the Tories have lost about 5% of their 2010 voters to Ukip.
Between mid-2012 and mid-2013 the Conservatives saw a 10-point drop in their polling from near 40%. At the same time, support for Ukip went from roughly 5% to hit highs of above 15%.
Subsequent attempts by Cameron to win back these voters have all fallen flat. He committed to an in/out referendum on EU membership. He promised to control immigration and limit foreigners’ access to welfare. And more recently he appealed to Ukip voters to “come back home”. Today’s tone may be a far cry from when he said back in 2006 that Ukip was full of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists – but none of these pleas has moved the polls.
Indeed, an Ipsos Mori survey released this week has the Conservatives behind Labour, and on a record low, when it comes to the party voters views as the “best” on immigration.
And by putting off more liberal and moderately inclined voters, the constant flirting with the right and the anti-EU flank of the electorate has also somewhat derailed the Cameroons’ project of modernising the party.
The net result: Cameron’s party has lost votes on both the left and right (see first chart above).
Some will argue the modernisation project had no merits to begin with, while others that the rebranding effort was critical, but that is a game of counterfactuals. The reality is that with just two weeks before the election the Conservatives are stuck on 34% in the polls and are still more disliked than Labour.
However, the Tories now believe that by getting the SNP to dominate the airwaves they have struck gold – and they have had this planned for weeks.
The modernisation project was a marathon to reach 40%, and it was abandoned some time ago. Yet this election is no longer about winning an outright majority. It has become a sprint to cobble together enough seats to form a government in alliance with other parties.
The Tories’ is a 36.5% strategy. It isn’t aimed at winning over new friends, but at winning back old ones. This tactic relies on targeting Ukip voters without scaring those already convinced to back the party.
Nevertheless, one factor that has changed since Lynton Crosby, the Conservatives election chief, first devised this plan, is that back when it was first thought up it was most probably one of several final moves the party had in mind before an inevitable checkmate.
But now with Miliband’s ratings on the up, and the polls still in a deadlock, Cameron realistically has one path left to stay in No 10 – he needs to roughly halve the number of seats the Tories are projected to lose to Labour.
Browsing through the list of seats where the Tories are within reach of Labour, and could win if Ukip support softens further, leads to a clear hit list.
In the following seats, the Conservatives are within five points, or less, of Labour, and Ukip are still polling above, or in line, with their current national average:
Halesowen & Rowley Regis
Crewe and Nantwich
After this first tier, there are at least seven other constituencies where the Tories are also about five points behind Labour, but the Ukip vote has already been squeezed to the extent that Farage’s party is already polling below its national average:
Milton Keynes South
Ealing Central & Acton
And then there is Cannock Chase, where Labour, Ukip and the Tories are all grouped within five points.
That’s a total pool of at least 18 seats – the required numbers are there. And Ukip’s ratings are edging downwards - albeit slowly – and the party’s focus is primarily switched on winning South Thanet, where Farage is betting his political future (he has repeatedly said he would stand down if he doesn’t win the seat).
However, it’s easier said than done for the Conservatives – it may not be enough to light the fire of a campaign that has so far failed to gain liftoff.
Cameron must not only make a clean sweep in the constituencies above, but he also needs to hope that Labour doesn’t meanwhile add to its gains elsewhere – and to state the obvious, just like there are seats where Labour is just ahead, there are others where the Tories’ lead is just as small – in the absence of a game-changing event, and if no other factor moves in their favour, the Conservatives need all else to remain as is.
The Tories are angling on the softness of Ukip’s vote. But there are two question marks that loom over their ambition.
First, Ukip support has proven to be fairly resilient – and nearly seven in 10 of its voters are “certain” to have made up their mind, according to this week’s Guardian/ICM poll.
Second, although it is true that Ukip has gathered most of its support from 2010 Conservative voters, votes for Farage’s party have also come from Labour. This implies that Cameron needs the ex-Tory voters to be softer than former Labour ones. And there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case.
As Anthony Wells of YouGov puts it: once you only look at parts of the electorate who think a Lab/SNP deal of some sort is likely AND think this would be a bad thing AND think a Tory government would be preferable BUT are not already voting Tory, the potential room for manoeuvre is quite limited.
Furthermore, while the SNP is indeed the party voters on the right would least like to see influence a future government. On the left, the party voters most believe shouldn’t have influence over a coalition is Ukip.
This tactic may even galvanise Labour support, and on the ground, Miliband’s campaign is believed to be in a higher gear compared with Cameron’s.
Finally, despite claims that she is “the most dangerous woman in Britain” and the daily flow of attacks and jibes, Nicola Sturgeon is actually popular. In fact, she is Britain’s most popular party leader.
In order to win the election, the Conservatives need all these different factors to align over the next two weeks, but the truth is there is no way of saying if they will.
However, what we do know is this: by confining his party on to the narrowest of roads, with each day that goes by, Crosby’s strategy is looking less and less like a game of chess, and increasingly like a round of Jenga.
This article was written by Alberto Nardelli, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 22nd April 2015 09.22 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010