HUMPHRYS: Tony Blair seems invincible.
He has his problems, of course, but they pale into insignificance compared
with the Conservatives. They're making no progress in the opinion polls
indeed. The question being asked increasingly these days is not whether
they will form the next government, but whether they can prevent the Liberal
Democrats displacing them as the main party of opposition. Iain Watson
has been to the Conservative heartland of Surrey to find out.
IAIN WATSON: It's not just the planet that
looks blue from a distance. Many constituencies in southern England have
traditionally had a Tory hue. But recently a political beast of a different
colour has been stalking the country - with the aim of dramatically changing
the landscape. This is the traditional territory of the lesser spotted
Conservative voter. Now I'm currently walking through the Twickenham constituency
in South West London, but just downstream of here you can see the constituency
of Richmond and upstream Kingston and Surbiton. Now these three seats
all have one thing in common - in 1997 they fell to a new species of political
animal - the Liberal Democrat. And buoyed by their success in this area,
they're now keen to invade neighbouring Tory terrain.
The Lib Dems are no longer
confined to their usual habitat on the Celtic fringe. In 2001 they advanced
into the home counties, winning Guildford. Now they are campaigning in
the neighbouring seat of South West Surrey. Not all the residents are
friendly, but that doesn't dent their almost hallucinogenic levels of optimism.
Nationally, they're talking about becoming the official opposition. Locally
they think they can do even better.
SIMON CORDON: We can become the official
opposition and we can become the government of this country. That's certainly
the objective we have. They said in the 80s and 90s, we would always be
stuck on twenty seats and we now have over fifty and in the last election
they said we would go back to just twenty, but we were the only party who
WATSON: But at the 2001 election
Labour won 413 seats - including the speaker - and the Tories, even with
a poor showing of 166 seats, were way ahead of the Liberal Democrats, whose
tally was just 52. Even so, some polling experts don't rule out a radical
shift next time round.
PROFESSOR PAUL WHITELEY: People's attachments to the political
parties are much weaker than they used to be. The brand loyalty if you
like was very much stronger a generation ago than it is now, which means
that people who are potential Conservatives can be detached and equally
people who are Labour supporters can be detached by the Lib Dems.
WATSON: A typical characteristic
of both the Liberal Democrat and the football manager alike is an obsession
with tactics and positioning.
To win seats from the Tories the Lib Dems need to squeeze the Labour vote
where Labour is in third place. Some strategists say privately that the
party should be stressing their commitment to the public services, to appeal
to left wing voters, while simultaneously adopting more business-friendly
policies to attract one nation Conservatives.
But we unearthed a document
by the Association of Liberal Democrat councillors which takes a less high
minded approach. It says: "effective opposition accentuates the negative".
And on the Darwinian principle of the survival of the fittest - it suggests
that to be successful, grass roots campaigners should evolve - into political
The document states in
simple terms: "you can secure support from voters who normally vote Tory
by being effectively anti-Labour" And similarly "in a Tory area secure
labour votes by being anti-Tory". And there's advice on finding the ingredients
for the perfect campaign cocktail:"be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly".
Are you wicked, do you
act shamelessly, do you stir endlessly?
CORDON: I'm never afraid to take
a risk and shoot from the hip if you like. As for wicked, certainly not.
Shameless, certainly not, determined to be a powerful advocate of local
need yes, always and ever. You know the ALDC, our Association of Liberal
Democrat Councillors, they are a superb organisation who have helped people
like me and many others to know how to campaign.
THERESA MAY MP: One could almost say that Liberal
Democrats hold fast to their principles as long as it takes get from one
doorstep to another, and we do see them adopting different causes in different
WATSON: But whether the Lib Dems
are campaigning on the moral high ground, or down in the gutter, it would
still take electoral swings of historical proportions for them to get more
seats than the Tories
WHITELEY: It would mean literally
a two punch knock out blow, one delivered from the Lib Dems with a ten
per cent swing from the Conservatives to the Lib Dems and the second punch
would have to come from Labour, again a ten per cent swing from the Conservatives
to Labour. Now if you recall that between 1992 and 1997 Labour achieved
a ten per cent swing, it's clearly possible but it's a tall order.
WATSON: The Liberal Democrats have
beavering away here in South West Surrey and they've got high hopes of
winning the seat. But the less than charitable might suggest that this
is the only Downing Street they are ever likely to see. Talk to Liberal
Democrats privately and they'll tell you there's really little chance of
overhauling the Tories at the time of the next election - so why all this
talk of official opposition. What's their game? Well, apparently it's all
a matter of inflicting maximum psychological damage.
The Liberal Democrats
will forage for potential territorial gains very carefully in the run up
to the next election. Although the Tories may end up with more seats, the
Lib Dems want to create the impression that the momentum is with them.
In other words, they are like spring to the Tory autumn, a few thousand
votes extra in just four seats could devastate the Shadow Cabinet. The
Shadow Home Secretary, Oliver Letwin, former Party Chairman David Davis,
one of their key campaigners Tim Collins and the current Party Chairman,
Theresa May, are all vulnerable.
SHERLOCK: That would, of course,
be..deliver a psychological devastating blow to the Conservative Party
losing some of their key rising stars, so I think those seats will be very
crucial to the Conservative Liberal Democrat balance and, of course, the
psychology of those results is important to what happens in the new Parliament
after the 2004 or 2005 election, so those will certainly be seats to watch,
and I can bet the Liberal Democrats would put in enormous effort in to
trying to win them.
WATSON: A past victim of Liberal
Democrat targeting says her party should ape the techniques of their opponents,
or their progress at the next election could be severely limited.
LADY MAITLAND: The Conservative Party should
be learning much more about high profile targeting of seats which are vulnerable.
They didn't do it at the last election and I think it was a great mistake.
There's no evidence that they're actually getting round to doing it next
time round. Unless they really focus their support on the seats that we
might lose and the seats that we must win, then frankly they're lost.
WATSON: South West Surrey Conservatives
are braving the elements to meet in a council of war. This is the night
that the fightback against the cocky Liberal Democrat insurgents should
begin. That is, once the ceremony of the door-opening has been mastered.
Virginia Bottomley is standing down at the next election, and the Conservative
Party is about to interview four hopefuls - all of them white males - who
think THEY can see off the Liberal Democrats.
Here in deepest Haslemere, behind very firmly closed doors, one of the
most sombre and secretive rituals in the Tory tribe is taking place - the
selection of the Parliamentary candidate. Now, it's not surprising that
they don't really want the likes of us to look in on such an important
occasion, but what is astonishing is that Party chiefs at Central Office
have told us we can't even have an interview with the successful candidate
once they've been chosen. Now in a key marginal seat where they have
to see off the Liberal Democrats, they are bound to leave themselves open
to accusations that they're running scared.
Your opponents say you're running scared.
MAY: Certainly not, and
what they will find...it's very interesting, if you look at what happened
in South West Surrey at the last election, the Liberal Democrats targeted
South West Surrey at the last election. They said they were going to win
that seat, they failed to win that seat and they will not win that seat.
WATSON: Officials at Conservative
Central Office are now burrowing away on schemes to fend off the Liberal
Democrats. The Party Chairman, Theresa May, has sent a letter to constituencies
telling them to go on the offensive ahead of next year's local elections,
but a former Tory MP says the anti Liberal Democrat unit here is more
of a sleeping lion cub than a ferocious beast.
MAITLAND: The unit at Central Office
is woefully inadequate, they have two people, one of them is a very young
man, someone who is more experienced, and that's it. I haven't seen any
leading speeches by senior politicians highlighting the Liberal Democrats.
I think that's a big mistake. I think they take the view that if you ignore
them, the problem will go away. I think it's the reverse, I think you've
got to hit them very very hard indeed.
MAY: What we've put together
is a very good group of people who are working to ensure that we can support
those of our candidates, be it at local government or Westminster level,
who are fighting the Liberal Democrats as the opposition party in their
WATSON: So not woefully inadequate
MAY: Certainly not.
WATSON: Are you going to beef it
MAY: I'm not going to tell
you anything about what our strategy for our Liberal Democrat unit is.
WATSON: Well, whatever it is, it
had better be good. There's not just the next election at stake; but
the long term survival of the species.
Sixth formers have come to Westminster to hear senior politicians address
a mass meeting of first time voters.
A polling analysis being studied in Conservative Central Office and seen
by On the Record suggests the Tories have problems.
While Iain Duncan Smith received a warm welcome here, his party is now
running neck and neck with the Liberal Democrats amongst 18 to 34 year
old voters. After this meeting, we spoke to a group of students from Godalming
College in South West Surrey.
This isn't a scientific study, but every one of them told us that a good
performance from the Tory leader hadn't persuaded them to back his party.
BOBBIE GANNON: They're just not up to date...like
the Lib Dems are very much more accommodating for the youth of today, like
NATASHA HARRINGTON: I did feel that Iain Duncan
Smith and the Tory Party were more in tune with young people than I thought
they would be, but I wouldn't be convinced to vote for, for the Tories
over the Lib Dems.
ALEX GREGSON: They need to change their
attitudes towards Europe, and particularly this homosexual...their attitudes
towards homosexuals and their rights to live their lives in this country.
I just think that needs a lot of reform.
WATSON: But before the Conservatives
retreat into their cave, there are those who say there's only limited grounds
for optimism amongst Charles Kennedy's party.
WHITELEY: Everyone's support is
shallow, but it's certainly true that Lib Dem support is more shallow.
A lot of people who say that they don't support any party voted Lib Dem
at the last election, and so to a significant extent the Lib Dems are still
a protest party. Now, the thing about being a protest party of course
is that you can easily lose support as well as quickly gain it.
WATSON: Every so often political
parties - just like planets - can suffer from what's known as extinction
level events. Who remembers the continuing SDP? The Lib Dems hope that
the next stage of political evolution could render the Tories if not extinct,
at least irrelevant. But if a week is a long time in politics, then the
Liberal Democrats' ambition to become the official opposition could still
be light years away.