James Reed: Tory ‘dead cat’ strategy is fast running out of lives

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan makes his way to City Hall from London Bridge Station in London, on his first day as mayor.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan makes his way to City Hall from London Bridge Station in London, on his first day as mayor.
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THE Conservative Party’s loss of the London mayoralty to Labour has prompted a degree of soul-searching in Tory circles about a campaign which focused heavily on portraying Sadiq Khan as a friend of Islamic extremism rather than Zac Goldsmith’s vision for the capital.

However a broader look at the recent history of Conservative election campaigning suggests that there needs to be a review which extends beyond the capital’s boundaries.

Even though it was David Cameron’s use of Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday to cast aspersions over Mr Khan’s associations which has been the subject of national attention – the fallout could be raised at PMQs today – the Humberside police and crime commissioner election campaign saw Labour candidate Keith Hunter subjected to a deeply unsavoury attack.

Shortly before polling day, Andrew Percy, the Conservative MP for Brigg and Goole, used Business Questions to refer to the “dodgy behaviour of police and crime commissioner candidates” and suggested to the Leader of the Commons, Chris Grayling, that the Government bring forward measures to force ex-police officers standing for PCC roles to publish their force records.

Responding Mr Grayling said: “I am aware of allegations about the Labour PCC candidate in Humberside. If the stories alleged about that candidate are true, he is unfit for public office, and it is a matter of public interest that the truth should be known before election day.”

Despite Mr Grayling having the legal protection through Parliamentary privilege to say what he liked in the Commons chamber, he chose not to elaborate further.

During election campaigns, journalists are frequently presented with rumours about candidates’ past failings and indiscretions but these are ignored in the absence of evidence to back them up.

However, by raising “allegations” in the Commons, journalists were faced with the choice of censoring themselves – a concept with which we are far from comfortable – or the equally unpalatable prospect of reporting an exchange which besmirched Mr Hunter’s reputation, despite not including any details to which he could respond.

I cannot be sure of Mr Percy’s intentions, but the pointed nature of the question – and the very specific response from Mr Grayling – suggested that this was a pre-arranged exchange designed to damage Mr Hunter.

It was a cowardly act and a shameful misuse of Parliamentary procedures. Tellingly, Conservatives in Yorkshire have privately expressed their own disquiet at this smear tactic. And, like the London campaign, it spectacularly failed with Mr Hunter defeating Conservative incumbent Matthew Grove to become Humberside’s new crime commissioner – a significant victory for Labour on an otherwise difficult day for the party.

The Conservatives’ enthusiasm for this form of campaigning can be traced back to last year when the party secured a surprise victory at the General Election.

Fear played a significant part in the Conservative campaign, both in posing the legitimate question over the implications of a possible Labour-SNP coalition but also through the use of the so-called dead cat strategy.

The best example of the latter was the Defence Secretary’s suggestion that Labour leader Ed Miliband might be willing to trade away Britain’s nuclear deterrent in return for Nicola Sturgeon’s backing – Michael Fallon said that the Doncaster North MP had “stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader”.

The dead cat strategy is named after the idea apparently put forward by Australian elections guru Lynton Crosby that if you were to throw a dead cat on the table at a dinner party, the guests might be repelled but you can be sure they will be talking about the dead cat.

In the Fallon case, many Conservative supporters thought he had gone too far, but nobody was talking about Labour’s plans to end “non-dom” status that allows some UK residents to avoid paying tax on overseas earnings.

But whatever part it played in 2015, last week’s results, where voters comprehensively rejected Mr Grove and Zac Goldsmith, suggest that the tactic has reached the limit of its usefulness.

In the wake of a host of policy U-turns and stumbles – over working tax credits, academies, the seven-day NHS among others – and the divisions over the EU referendum, the deployment of the dead cat looks less and less like a cunning electoral strategy, and more and more the desperate act of a party that will do anything to distract attention.

It is more than a decade since Theresa May, then Conservative Party chairman, stood up at its annual conference in Bournemouth and told activists an uncomfortable truth – namely that the Tories were seen as the “nasty party”.

That was after five years in opposition and it would be another eight before the Conservatives were back in office.

They should take a fresh look at their approach now before voters have to teach them the same lesson all over again. David Cameron should consider going back to hugging hoodies rather than throwing dead cats.

James Reed is The Yorkshire Post’s political editor.