The Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempts to reach out to Labour voters has suffered a humiliating blow. It has emerged that a voter he quoted during his party conference speech this week, as an example of someone who had been persuaded by the his party’s arguments, actually converted to the Tories in the 1980s when it was led by Margaret Thatcher.
As the Labour Party pitches wildly to the left under new leader Jeremy Corbyn, Mr Cameron has made no secret of his desire to conquer the centre ground, and his desire to persuade Labour moderates to back his party going forward.
So it was no surprise that he would include in his conference speech a real life example of someone who had done just that. In a key moment of the speech, Mr Cameron quoted Bernard Harris, an 82-year-old former Labour voter from Leicester, who the prime minister said had written to him just before last May’s general election to pledge his support.
“I have a message for those who voted for us and those who never have,” Mr Cameron told his party faithful. “the party you need is the party right here.
“And it’s never too late. Bernard Harris from Leicester wrote to me before polling day and said this.
“’Aged 82, this is possibly my last election. In my life I have foolishly voted Labour, believing it served the working class. How wrong I was. Labour is against all I aspire to.
“’I am 100 per cent for a United Kingdom, a sound economy, free enterprise, a trading Europe and a decent standard of living. Only a Conservative Government will achieve this.’
“Bernard, you found the right party – and I want many more to follow in your footsteps.”
The implication from Mr Cameron was clear: Mr Harris had been persuaded by the current party’s moderate rhetoric and was paving the way for many more Labour voters to switch allegiance.
As ever with former PR man Cameron, the truth was somewhat different. Talking to The Mirror, Mr Harris revealed that he first voted Conservative not in 2015, but in 1987, when the party was breaking new ground under Margaret Thatcher.
That year, Mr Harris was one of 13,760,935 British citizens, (42.2 per cent of the electorate) who turned out to vote for the Conservatives, handing the party a 102 seat majority. That year, Mrs Thatcher became the first prime minister to secure three successive general election victories in more than 160 years.
Scroll forward to 2015, and Mr Cameron could only secure 11,334,576 votes, equivalent to 36.9 per cent of the voting electorate.
Mr Harris told the paper that he was surprised but happy to be referenced by Mr Cameron during the speech. “They asked me for permission to use the letter, but didn’t tell me it was for the Prime Minister,” he said. “I’m a humble person and I was happy for them to use it, because I meant every word I said.”
He said he had stuck with the Conservatives over the years because he was thinking of his children and grandchildren. “It’s not for me, I’m at the end of my life,” he said.
Asked whether he could be persuaded back to the Labour party by Mr Corbyn, Mr Harris said he thought not, saying: “I don’t doubt he’s a very sincere man, and believes what he says. But I think he’s misguided. Mostly over the nuclear deterrent.
“He’s entitled to his opinion the same as everyone else is. Maybe he’ll take the Labour party in a good direction.”
This is not the first time that Mr Cameron has clung on to Lady Thatcher’s coat-tails. The Conservatives’ 2015 manifesto revived a number of pledges first used to great effect by the Iron Lady in the 1979 general election which delivered her first victory, including council tenants ‘right to buy’ their council houses, government spending cuts, and nods to privatisation within the NHS.