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Whatever happened to ‘Operation Balsall Heath’?

Whatever happened to ‘Operation Balsall Heath’?

🕔12.Mar 2013

balsallIt seems an age since David Cameron gave the appearance of being a semi-permanent fixture in Birmingham.

You couldn’t keep him away from the place in the run-up to the 2010 General Election, and in the first few months after he formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.

Balsall Heath was proclaimed to be the Tory party’s Big Society in action.

In 2007, when he was leader of the opposition, Cameron even spent a couple of days living with an Asian corner shop owner and his family. Mr Cameron, an Old Etonian, explained that he did this so that he could learn more about life in inner city communities.

It was while Cameron was at his temporary accommodation in Balsall Heath that Tony Blair quit as prime minister, handing the office to Gordon Brown. The Tory leader’s media-savvy response was to head for Ladypool Road, Sparkbrook, where he was filmed enjoying a curry and swapping banter with regulars at a local pub.

The deliberate contrast between ‘man of the people’ Cameron and the dour Brown could hardly have been greater.

Cynical media manipulation? In part, yes. Cameron’s big idea was, and still is, to present the Conservatives as a modern multi-ethnic party able to understand and deal sympathetically with cultural issues, not to mention embracing gay marriage and generally promoting social tolerance.

Ironically, the modernisation programme was developed partly in response to former party chairman Theresa May’s denunciation of the Tories as the ‘nasty party. Ms May, now Home Secretary, is said to be quietly plotting a leadership challenge should Mr Cameron end up on the scrap heap.

There is a key political driver here. The fact is that the Conservative Party is highly unlikely ever again to be able to form a government on its own without winning in cities like Birmingham and the heavily-populated regions of the West Midlands, the North-west and North-east. Piling up the votes in the South-east and South-west simply won’t get the Tories over the Westminster finishing line.

The 2010 General Election, fought against the backdrop of Gordon Brown’s disastrous spell in government, was supposed to signal the big breakthrough for the Tories in the multi-ethnic cities of the Midlands and the North of England. If the Conservative Party couldn’t win then, benefiting from a combination of Labour’s unpopularity and Cameron’s new radicalism, how could they ever win?

I took a phone call from Cameron on polling day, in my capacity then as public affairs correspondent for the Birmingham Post and Birmingham Mail. He was clearly keen to squeeze out every last vote, with a clear warning that the Conservative opinion poll lead wouldn’t be translated into seats at Westminster if complacent supporters stayed at home.

There was a sense to me then that Cameron, tired and deflated, was simply going through the motions and that forecasts of a Conservative landslide were wildly over-optimistic. Twenty-four hours later, we had the confirmation that Birmingham had remained a resolutely Labour city save for two exceptions – Tory Andrew Mitchell in Sutton Coldfield, who increased his share of the vote, and Liberal Democrat John  Hemming in Yardley.

The Tory target seats – Selly Oak, Northfield, Hall Green and Erdington – were retained fairly easily by Labour. In Birmingham Edgbaston, so often quoted as a must-win for the Conservatives, Labour’s Gisela Stuart held on with a majority of 1,274.

Operation Balsall Heath – also known as detoxification of the Tory brand – failed to deliver the goods for Mr Cameron in Birmingham, and in other major English cities.

The political history of the past three or four years is important because, once more, the Conservatives seem to be facing a crisis. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the party is at a crossroads, squeezed between the Cameron modernisers, an increasingly voluble right wing, and UKIP waiting in the wings.

Election strategist Lord Ashcroft popped up at the weekend to suggest, unhelpfully for Mr Cameron, that the Conservative Party was facing its Dunkirk. His polling of 19,000 voters in 213 marginal seats put Labour on course for an 84-seat majority at a General Election.

The party’s so-called 40-40 strategy, designed to concentrate resources on seizing 40 key marginal seats from other parties while defending 40 key Tory marginal seats was not working because it failed to address the scale of Conservative unpopularity across the country, Ashcroft reasoned.

The Eastleigh by-election was fought in exceptional circumstances, and you can’t always learn a lot from mid-term elections, but UKIP’s second place at the expense of the Conservative candidate will certainly have helped fuel a growing right wing rebellion from the likes of former defence secretary Liam Fox and former leadership contender David Davis.

In Birmingham at the 2012 local government elections, Conservative candidates managed to poll 24 per cent of the total vote, putting the party back to 1995 levels. And for all Mr Cameron’s courting of Balsall Heath, his party failed to get a single non-white face elected to the city council.

On a national level, opinion polls have for some months put Labour’s lead over the Conservatives at between eight and 13 points.

The 2015 General Election will no doubt see another attempt to engineer a Tory comeback in Birmingham, whether or not Mr Cameron is still party leader. But time is running out to turn opinion back in the Conservative favour, and it may already be too late.


Marginal Midland parliamentary seats, where swing of up to 10 per cent is required for second place party in 2010 to win:

Conservative held

North Warwickshire – 54 majority

Wolverhampton South-west – 691

Halesowen & Rowley Regis – 2,023

Nuneaton – 2,069

Wyre Forest – 2,643

Worcester – 2,982

Cannock Chase – 3,195

Warwick & Leamington – 3,513

Dudley South – 3,856

Stourbridge – 5,164

Stafford – 5,460

Redditch – 5,821

Rugby – 6,000

Tamworth – 6,090

Staffordshire Moorlands – 6,689

Worcestershire West – 6,754

Liberal Democrat held

Solihull – 175 majority

Birmingham Yardley – 3,002

Labour held

Dudley North – 649 majority

Walsall North – 990

Birmingham Edgbaston – 1,274

Walsall South – 1,755

Wolverhampton North-east – 2,484

Birmingham Northfield – 2,782

Birmingham Erdington – 3,277

Birmingham Selly Oak – 3,482

Birmingham Hall Green – 3,799

Coventry South – 3,845

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