The furore over Labour’s ‘Tory Toffs’ campaign tactic in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election has generated a lot of heat but little light. David Cox is delighted that the ‘Bullingdon boys’ are in the ascendancy whilst John Harris believes that Labour’s tactics are in danger of turning it into the ‘nasty’ party. It is certainly true that Labour is making a big issue of the fact that the Conservative candidate for the seat, Edward Timpson, is a wealthy barrister, that he was educated at Uppingham public school and that he is the son of John Timpson, the owner and founder of the multi-million pound Timpson shoe repair and key-cutting empire. What the Labour strategists argue is that it is surely a fair and legitimate question to ask how a person of such immense wealth and privilege can seek to represent the views of people with whom he has so very little in common. Are these really ‘nasty’ tactics? No, of course they aren’t. It is also true that Labour is attacking the Tory opposition (or more accurately flip-flop) to ID cards for all foreign nationals from outside the EU. Most people I have spoken to on the doorstep in Crewe this weekend support the introduction of such cards, indeed many feel that they should have been introduced a long time ago.
It is the ‘Tory boy’ attacks however that have really upset the Conservative campaign team. By focusing on the 'posh' aspects of the Tory candidate's background Labour is hoping to put clear 'red' water between him and their own candidate, Tamsin Dunwoody. Ms Dunwoody was educated in the state sector (as are her own children) and is at pains to point out that she is able to both sympathise and empathise with local people. The bottom line is that Labour's tactics in Crewe trouble the Tories. Why? Because they are all too aware that a significant number of Cameron’s front bench come from privileged and wealthy backgrounds. They (Team Cameron) also know that for many of the Eton educated Tory 'toffs' who presently surround Cameron politics is something of hobby, something to do in conjunction with few non-executive directorships.
The Tory commentator and founder of Conservative Home, Tim Montgomerie, hit the nail on the head last summer when (writing for the Guardian) he suggested that far too many of David Cameron's frontbenchers are part-timers and that they hold 115 outside interests between them. Contrast Cameron’s closest allies with the likes of Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major or even David Davis – it is unlikely that any of them would ever make it into Cameron’s inner circle.
So are Labour right to make ‘class’ an issue in the Crewe by-election? In all honesty Labour has been reluctant to play the 'class' card up to now for one obvious reason - Tony Blair himself went to Fettes College and Oxford. But now that Blair is off the scene, Gordon Brown (Kirkcaldy High School and Edinburgh University) need have no such qualms. Nothing is guaranteed to motivate Labour party members more than regular reminders that people like Mr Timpson and his party leader are not the 'ordinary blokes' that they want to be portrayed as. After all David Cameron belonged to an exclusive club whose members paid £400 a head for a meal and then liked to wreck the restaurant immediately after.
Labour strategists know that many voters, especially in seats like Crewe and Nantwich, are still put off by ‘Tory toffs.’ Who can blame them?