General Election 2015: David Cameron plays it safe to fight Ukip and Labour

 
Tim Wallace
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The PM wants to focus on growth. But he is vulnerable on immigration
David Cameron should be riding high, and he knows it. Such a strong economic turnaround compared with the position in 2010 would traditionally mean he had it in the bag.

But with just 113 days to go until the general election he is still neck and neck with Labour. The Prime Minister cannot even take the fight to Ed Miliband to the left – he is surrounded, with Ukip hitting his vote in areas of the traditional right.

It is an unprecedented challenge, and he is already struggling.

Cameron has set out his six key themes for the election campaign – the deficit, taxes, home ownership, retirement, education and jobs.

Obviously that makes sense. Unemployment has dived, growth has returned and, just in time for the election, real wages are on the up.

Equally obviously, Labour was immediately on the attack, declaring it “staggering” that the NHS was not listed as a priority.

“After a week when we’ve seen a Tory NHS crisis worsening day after day it’s a staggering omission by David Cameron to fail to make the NHS one of his six themes,” said shadow minister Chris Leslie.

“Our tough but balanced plan is different from the Tories’ extreme and ideological approach.”

That left the Prime Minister immediately fighting a rearguard action.

“As we make these decisions and reduce spending, we will continue to increase spending on the NHS so everyone gets the care they need,” was the fifth and final “commitment” made in a speech yesterday.

You can only have a strong NHS if you have a strong economy.”

Thus begins the oddly cautious battle between the Tories and Labour, with both sides refusing to venture off their own home turf.

‘The Tories know they are vulnerable on the NHS, they know they are behind,” said YouGov’s Joe Twyman. “They cannot fight Labour head to head on this, so they have to try to neutralise the issue.”

If it was only as simple as fighting over the NHS and the economy, pollsters believe the Conservatives would have a strong chance in May.

But it is not that simple.

Another gaping hole in the Prime Minister’s six themes is immigration.

“Net immigration is currently running at 260,000 a year, which makes a mockery of the Tories’ 2010 pledge to cut immigration to tens of thousands,” said Ukip’s Paul Nuttall.

Professor Roger Mortimore from Ipsos Mori sees this as the more serious Conservative weakness.

“In a sense, this is their biggest risk – the Tories might hold votes against Labour on the NHS and the economy, but voters do not trust either of the big parties on immigration.”

And it is not only Ukip who will bring up the subject of immigration repeatedly. The pro side is also vocal.

“Businesses of all sizes need access to a skilled and open labour market,” said Christian May from the Institute of Directors, promising to keep immigration central to the election debate.

“As the campaign narrows it’s vital that we prevent politicians from outbidding each other on damaging anti-immigration policies.”

While he might have been able to dodge one big issue, two is proving tougher – leaders want to set the agenda to get off to a strong campaign, and the Prime Minister has failed to seize that initiative.

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