They were the notorious images that many believe set David Cameron on the road to a majority government, sealed Ed Miliband’s fate as Labour leader, and made an in/out referendum on the UK’s EU membership inevitable.
Now one of the architects of the Brexit victory has accused the Tories of “exploiting nationalist hostility” during the 2015 general election with an series of posters targeting the prospect of a Labour-SNP pact.
Dominic Cummings, who came to prominence as special adviser to then-education secretary Michael Gove, was director of the official Leave campaign, and is credited with developing some of its key messages, including the infamous pledge of £350m in extra funding for the NHS and the warning that Turkey’s accession to the EU would see millions of its citizens flood into Britain.
The media-shy strategist, who is known for looking to Ancient history and the career of Otto von Bismarck for political inspiration, broke cover this week to defend his campaign against claims it unleashed a wave of irrational populist emotion and played on fears of immigration, accusing critics among senior ranks of his own party of hypocrisy.
Buried in a 20,000 word blog post, Cummings ridicules former Chancellor George Osborne by recalling the campaign the Tories waged in 2015, aimed at raising fears among English voters that Miliband’s Labour Party could do a deal with the SNP in the event of a hung parliament.
One poster showed Mr Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket, while another showed the former First Minister picking someone’s pocket.
In the essay, Cummings dismisses the idea that “the great rationalists Cameron and Osborne – they of Project Fear and their comic ’emergency budget’, and in 2015 the pictures of Salmond picking pockets designed successfully to persuade the English that the Scots would steal their money – were undone by a great surge of ’emotion’.
“Osborne is taking this delusion so far he is writing a book titled ludicrously ‘The Age of Unreason’.
“When you lose and you blame it on millions of people being overtaken by ‘unreason’ – after previously winning by exploiting nationalist hostility – it’s a sure sign that you are the one not reasoning straight and able to face your errors.
“For the likes of Osborne it is ‘irrational’ to reject the views of people like him. For most of us, people like Osborne are not experts to be trusted – they are charlatans not to be taken seriously.”
Scottish Labour’s Westminster spokesman Ian Murray MP, who last week accused Theresa May of being “as big a threat to the Union as the SNP” by pushing for a hard Brexit, agreed with Cummings’ view of the 2015 campaign.
“Dominic Cummings is right to highlight the utter hypocrisy of a Tory Party that has cynically exploited nationalist tensions to serve their own ends, instead of the country’s,” Murray said.
“The Tories put the union at risk with a divisive general election campaign that set Scotland versus England.
“When even Dominic Cummings – the man behind the campaign which shamefully played on fears around immigration and outright lied about NHS funding – accuses you of exploiting nationalist hostility then you should stop and think.”
Ahead of a major speech on Brexit by the Prime Minister on Tuesday, Murray added: “The fact is that at every turn since the 2014 referendum, the Tories have put the future of the UK at risk: from the constitutional wrecking ball of English Votes for English Laws, to two divisive election campaigns, and the reckless Brexit gamble.
“Scots who voted both Yes and No want to move on from arguments of the past, but instead Theresa May continues to fuel the divisions the SNP thrives on, allowing Nicola Sturgeon to restart her campaign for independence.”
A spokesman for the SNP said: “The Tories disgraceful negative campaign posters showed how nervous they were about the people of Scotland returning a strong team of SNP MPs.
“They knew that would mean Scotland’s voice would be heard at Westminster in a way the Tories and Labour parties had failed to do for years.’’