Easy Tory win? Grant Shapps is whistling in the dark

Tory chairman says they only have to win over 11,000 voters to grab victory. Wrong, says our poll-watcher

Columnist Don Brind

Tory party chairman Grant Shapps has come up with a magic number which he says will return David Cameron to Downing Street without the need for a coalition with those pesky Liberal Democrats.

The number is 11,000. In a Sunday Times interview he explains that this is the number of voters the Tories need to win over to get the 23 seats they need for an overall majority in the House of Commons.

Depending on your point of view, Shapps’s logic is either elegantly simple or stunningly stupid.

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At the 2010 election, there were 23 seats won by slender majorities by Labour or the Lib Dems which, had they gone to the Tories, would have given Cameron unfettered power.

They ranged from Hampstead and Kilburn, where veteran Labour MP Glenda Jackson survived by just 42 votes, to Plymouth Moor View, where Labour’s Alison Seabeck won with a majority of 1,588. Tot up those narrow majorities in the 23 seats, says Shapps, and you get the magic number of 11,000.

Where Shapps is right is that the election will be won and lost in fewer than 100 of the 650 parliamentary seats – the battleground marginals.

The flaw in his argument is that it assumes the Tories have the same appeal today as they did in 2010. Yet all the national poll averages and the Ashcroft surveys in individual seats show they are on level-pegging with Labour - which means there’s been a swing to Labour since the last election.

The question of how many marginals the Tories might take from Labour was addressed back in the autumn by the May2015 website. The verdict: “On the face of it, their prospects look bleak. Ashcroft has polled the 12 most closely-fought Tory-Labour seats from 2010, and all but one of them have shown double-digit Labour leads in both late May and late August.”

In the most marginal seat - Hampstead and Kilburn - Labour had the edge by just 0.1 per cent in 2010. An Ashcroft constituency poll has the new Labour candidate Tulip Siddiq (replacing Glenda, who is retiring) ahead by 17 per cent.

In Derby North, Chris Williamson, who squeaked in by just over 600 votes in 2010 (a lead over the Tories of only 1.4 per cent), now enjoys a 21 per cent lead according to Ashcroft’s polling.

It is true the national Labour lead over the Tories has narrowed since the autumn - but not on a scale that suggests Shapps’s dream will be fulfilled.

There’s another reason why Tory activists might be wary of their chairman’s attempt to raise their morale. As well as the Shapps interview, the Sunday Times carried some interesting YouGov polling on voters’ perceptions of the Tory ‘brand’.

Voters were asked about the party’s “closeness” to 13 of society’s groups. The Tories are seen as “close” to rich people, business people, those in the south and the middle class, and “not close” to the working class, people in the north and Scotland, and trade unions.

In themselves the results are not a surprise, says Stephan Shakespeare of YouGov. What is interesting, he says, is that the same questions were asked shortly after David Cameron became prime minister. The change is striking. “The Tories are seen to have moved further towards their comfort zone groups and become even more distant from those groups from which they still need to win votes to stay in government.”

A tougher line on benefit claimants and immigrants - adopted in an attempt to win back voters lost to Ukip - has been successful, says Shakespeare. However, the problem is that the Ukippers are also typically more working-class – a ‘group’ that has been angered by the HSBC scandal.

“If the Tories appear to Ukippers as the party of the tax-avoiding super-rich,” says Shakespeare, “taking cash from the public services on which ordinary people depend, the Conservatives will not get back those vital swing votes.”

Sorry, Grant Shapps - it’s not looking as simple as you suggest.

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