David Cameron’s stunning victory was built on two basic messages and despite a few wobbles here and there, under the direction of strategist Lynton Crosby it was rigidly adhered to throughout the campaign at all levels.
Crosby rammed home the strategy at every opportunity and although there was a drip-feed of policy announcements throughout the campaign, designed to control news attention as much as anything, the two core messages around which everything else was woven remained constant throughout.
Number one was economic confidence; that the Conservatives had worked hard to repair the damage done by Labour, that they recognised sacrifices had to be made, that it would be disastrous to hand control back to the people who cause the problem in the first place. With the public already believing Labour was by nature profligate it was not difficult to make it stick.
Number two was Ed Miliband’s weakness; that he was an old-fashioned tax-and-spend socialist, that he had no experience of earning a proper living, that every new uncosted pledge was a sign of desperation. Unfortunately, in the television era his personal projection reinforced the impression. His awkward, overly-sincere delivery made him look and sound like a sickly TV evangelist and his spooky habit of staring into the camera made viewers feel uncomfortable.
That was the extent of the basic Tory strategy – we’re on the road to recovery, don’t let that Labour creep wreck it. Again and again and again.
But then came X Factor three, the SNP surge. By tying in the strength of Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond to Miliband’s perceived weaknesses, they created the perfect bogeyman of a feeble man who would be manipulated by people only out for themselves. Obviously that was never going to work in Scotland, but as the polls continued to suggest the most likely outcome was a stalemate the message cut through where it mattered most.
But voters aren’t stupid. Without real evidence the economy had at least stabilised, claims for competence simply wouldn’t wash, but the unemployment and inflation figures don’t lie.
And attacking Miliband for being a traditional Socialist spendthrift was only effective if people genuinely believed Cameron had the economy under control. Ironically, rather than demonstrating their own competence, Labour’s matching of Conservative spending control pledges served only to reinforce the message that the Tories were doing the right things.
“We’ve got a better plan” was never going to work if half of it appeared pinched.
So why doesn’t this work in Scotland, where every attitude survey shows the average Scot is every bit as receptive to Conservative messages as his or her English cousins except, it seems, when they come from the Conservatives? The reasons are complex, but here are three basics:
1. The party has never been able to lose the perception of being a party primarily for the rich, privileged and English, despite the average Scottish member being none of these, least of all Ruth Davidson. Ordinary Scots don’t accept the party can ever speak for them.
2. The SNP has been able to take much of the credit for the bedrock of economic competence and achievement but it is wrapped up with a message that these are means to the ends of social justice, fairness and equality, however motherhood and apple pie these goals might be.
3. The SNP can never be defined as anything other than a Scottish party whose agenda is always set in Scotland, simply because there is no London party. Of all the parties, the quintessentially British Conservatives cannot escape the charge that their agenda is set in London.
For the immediate future there is broad agreement that if these perceptions are to be challenged and reversed, Ruth Davidson is the person to do it. But her popularity, personality and perseverance are testing current structures for the Scottish centre right to destruction. Only when the competence of the Scottish Government is tested by revenue raising powers will the playing field be levelled.
• John McLellan is a former Scottish Conservatives director of communications