The Conservative Party has the loosest party constitution of the three major parties, and its manifesto process can vary enormously. Five years ago, the Conservative Party had already produced a series of detailed policy papers that went on to form the basis of the 2010 manifesto. The process is considerably different this time round. Senior Conservatives are engaged in ministerial positions and simply do not have the time to devote to future policy development.
As the process has changed, so have the personnel. In contrast to the last election, Oliver Letwin will not be the principal overseer of the 2015 manifesto. Though Letwin is still involved, Jo Johnson has taken on the coordinator role, supported by MPs on the Number 10 Policy Board and political advisers in the Number 10 Policy Unit and at CCHQ. Parliamentary policy committees, made up of front- and backbenchers, will be given a greater chance to contribute than prior to 2010. The 2014 Budget saw some of the first policy fruits of these collected labours.
The manifesto development process remains fluid, but in the weeks following the European Parliament elections in May concerted drafting by the Policy Unit and the Chancellor’s special advisers will take place. Jo Johnson and Rupert Harrison will spend the summer holidays reviewing policy submissions and selecting key announcements for the autumn party conference in Birmingham.
Later in the year, further policies will be refined and created, some of which will be announced, with a view to drafting a first full version of the manifesto for presentation to the Prime Minister and Chancellor before Christmas. In the first quarter of 2015, more chunks of policy will be revealed. There will be a small number of major policy announcements around spring conference time and the final manifesto will be agreed by Conservative Cabinet Ministers shortly after.
In recent months, the Conservatives have begun to assemble their team for the election campaign with Special Advisers spending time away from Cabinet Ministers and back in CCHQ as Lynton Crosby builds his election machine. More junior figures from the CCHQ press and policy units are being swapped into departments, while some of the big talent is going back to the centre to work for Crosby.
The Conservatives’ underpinning message at the general election will be straightforward: “Britain’s on the right track, don’t turn back”. The Prime Minister and Chancellor believe that this strategy enabled President Obama to win in very difficult circumstances, enabling him to point to his opposition and claim that they had not changed and couldn’t be trusted with an economy that they had wrecked in the first place. This is exactly where the Conservatives want to position Labour.
The Tories will be seeking to portray themselves as the only political party capable of taking the tough decisions that Britain needs to thrive, and hope that Labour’s polling advantage on cost of living issues will erode as unemployment continues to fall and wages begin to outstrip inflation. But winning will depend as much as anything on confounding the durable impression, confirmed by Lord Ashcroft’s research, that they are the party of the rich. Radical policy shifts are under consideration, with a big move on house-building a headline area of focus.
The Conservatives’ political approach for the next year is clear – pick issues where they believe Labour to be weak or out of touch and hammer home their attacks relentlessly. The Tories want to position themselves on the side of hardworking people (the latest in a long line of monikers describing key swing voters – think Essex man and Worcester woman) and believe that a mixture of economic competence and strong policies on immigration, welfare and Europe will put them on the right side of the dividing line.
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