Over the summer, the balance of probability nudged away from a Cameron win towards a Miliband win in 2015. The collapse of the boundary review deal lifted the bar for Cameron, who might have struggled anyway. The Cameron operation – for all of its strengths elsewhere – has proven weak at campaigns. Failing to win a majority in a recession against a loathed opponent was one sign, the disastrous mayoral referenda another and the tragicomedy of the PCC elections completed the hat-trick. And then there were the U-turns, many of them defeats at the hands of ad hoc groups running a decent week-long campaigns: 38 Degrees on health reform, etc. The prospect of the 2010 team running the 2015 election would encourage only Labour.
But when outsiders run Tory campaigns – Matthew Elliot on AV and Lynton Crosby in London – things work out differently. Crosby is the closest thing Britain has to a professional campaigner. I know him reasonably well: he is no ideologue. Hiring him is not a matter of lurching to the right, but recognising the need to have a professional running a disciplined campaign. This means having two or three messages at the start, and not introducing concepts like ‘The Big Society’ in the final weeks of a campaign. It means reaching out and building wider alliances, not relying on what one Tory minister refers to as a “chumocracy”.
Obama’s re-election showed how a good campaign can prevail even when the candidate has no clear message. Cameron has several messages, but he chops and changes so often that none really cut through. Cameron has given 12,000 pupils the ability to enter independent schools, for free. He acted courageously and swiftly over Libya, putting steel into American spines. His welfare reforms are making the biggest, most sustained assault on British poverty for a generation. His health reforms will mean that the excellence of private clinics is made accessible to all, not just those who can afford it. Yet these jewels of accomplishment are too often invisible, buried beneath the gravel of omnishambles.
This isn’t the fault of spin doctors. The butterfly-mindedness comes from the top. As one of his longstanding allies told me last month, ‘lack of Prime Ministerial grip’. He needs help, and Crosby will provide it. Crosby’s enemies will portray him as a Fosters-swilling right-wing thug, as Alastair Campbell sought to in 2005. But his appointment is not about political positioning on a left-right spectrum. It’s not about immigration, etc. Crosby is a campaigner, not a policymaker. He will play the hand he’s dealt. His appointment is about the basic art of campaigning; having one Masterchef to replace too many cooks.
Yet much depends on how much authority Crosby is given for 2015. If he is just another adviser, then chaos may well prevail. Yet if Crosby is given the power over Cameron’s campaign as he had over Boris’s, then I’d say that the balance of probability will be nudged back towards a Cameron win.