How postal ballots triggered a Tory rush to warn of a Labour super-majority

Grant Shapps looks on as Rishi Sunak proclaims the Tories can win the election
Grant Shapps looks on as Rishi Sunak proclaims the Tories can win the election - Victoria Jones/Shutterstock

Barely had the ink dried on the Conservative manifesto before Grant Shapps was out and about warning voters about the danger of a Labour super-majority.

Rather than telling voters how the manifesto pledges were going to make their lives better, the Defence Secretary appeared to be conceding that Labour had already won, and it was just a matter of how all-conquering their victory would be.

Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, doubled down on the new message, telling voters that if they backed Reform UK or the Lib Dems they would end up giving Labour “an even bigger majority”.

It seemed a strange tactic to be pursuing after Rishi Sunak had insisted he had not given up on winning the general election on July 4.

But Tory strategists are preoccupied with two things right now: voter apathy and the arrival of postal voting slips on the country’s doormats.

Huge numbers of voters are still saying they are undecided, and Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) believes there are still enough Tory-leaning people among them to make a real difference to the outcome of the election.

The main problem is that even if those who are undecided prefer the Conservatives to any other party, polling suggests that a sizeable percentage of them will simply stay at home.

In 1997, the Labour landslide was partly caused by two million 1992 Tory voters staying at home, and CCHQ is deeply worried about a repeat.

So the campaign team, led by elections guru Isaac Levido, took the decision to send out targeted adverts on Facebook and other social media sites which showed the possibility of the Conservatives ending up with as few as 57 seats.

Sources at CCHQ insist this is already making a difference on doorsteps, as voters tell candidates they are worried about Labour having unfettered power and will be giving more thought to how they vote.

In terms of timing, the social media adverts were put out to coincide with postal voting slips being sent out. There is a fear at CCHQ that voters will simply put a cross next to Reform or the LibDems to give the Tories a bloody nose without thinking about the true consequences of what that might mean.

There are, however, major risks associated with the super-majority strategy.

For a start, candidates say they were not told in advance that it was coming, meaning they are having to come up with responses on the hop. One senior Tory described the change of tack as “desperate stuff”.

There is also an unwritten rule that political parties never change their strategy part way through a campaign.

As one Conservative source put it: “The only way you win is to decide your strategy and stick to it come what may. If that strategy is about tax, you brief the candidates at the start of the campaign about tax, and keep rigid message discipline.

“If you don’t do that you risk chaos. The only thing worse than a bad strategy is changing your strategy. It never, ever works.”

Opinion is also divided over the merits of telling voters they are backing a loser. Some political scientists believe that if you tell electors their party will lose if they don’t get out and vote, they are even less likely to vote than if you tell them they are backing a winner.

Quite how long the strategy will last is another thing altogether. By Thursday morning Lord Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, had decided he was not going to entertain any talk of Labour super-majorities, or even a Labour victory.

Asked by Sky News what he would do if the Conservatives lost the election, he replied: “If my mother had wheels she’d be a bicycle, I don’t answer questions beginning with the word if.”