Jeremy Corbyn can win a general election against the Tories, the Conservatives’ top campaign guru warned.
Sir Lynton Crosby, who masterminded Boris Johnson ’s triumphs in the London Mayor race in 2008 and 2012, and David Cameron’s shock 2015 poll victory, issued the alert amid mounting claims a snap general election could be imminent.
He suggested the winner of the Tory leadership race would enjoy a brief honeymoon, saying: “A change in leadership … provides the opportunity for a new engagement with the voters, and the person who becomes leader has to have an ability to connect with the voters and offer a sense of hope.”
Experts believe whoever wins could be forced into an early election in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock.
But, speaking at the Policy Exchange think tank, Sir Lynton believed there was a genuine chance of a Labour triumph – but that could benefit the Conservatives.
“With the last election and Jeremy Corbyn , the point that often gets overlooked is that there were overwhelmingly high expectations of a Conservative win,” he told the Mirror.
“Expectations are critical in an election outcome so in the 2017 campaign, even at the end, well over 60% of people thought the Conservatives were going to win.
“That had two impacts – firstly the impact of anything negative within the Conservatives’ manifesto that would seem to target particular groups, or was seen as unpopular – however right or wrong people may think it was – that was a much greater and real threat that sometimes policy propositions are because most voters thought, ‘The Conservatives are going to win, this is coming to town very soon, I’m not sure about that’.
“Conversely, no-one thought Jeremy Corbyn was going to win. They gave him points during the campaign because he conducted himself more competently than they expected.
“They thought he was unable to walk and chew gum at the same time, essentially.
“He conducted himself well, his campaign had been well-organised, he stuck to a message and was consistent with the delivery of that message.
“But they didn’t think he was going to win, so most of the attacks on his policy back then were observations not threats.
“You could say he believes in higher takes – doesn’t matter, he’s not going to win, is he?
“This time that dynamic significantly changes: the threat is real – he could win.”
Some Labour MPs privately admit telling voters in the 2017 campaign to back their Labour candidate even though they disliked Mr Corbyn, because he had no chance of becoming Prime Minister.
They know they cannot use the same tactic twice after the shock surge for Labour two years ago.
Sir Lynton said the next leader of the Conservative Party must be someone with “character”.
In what could be seen as an endorsement of Mr Johnson – and a thinly-veiled rebuke to Theresa May – he insisted: “Character and authenticity are very important.”
He added: “The most successful politicians today are those who have some form of character.”
Former Conservative chairman Lord Andrew Feldman warned the winner off a snap election.
“I just think it should be avoided. Elections are complicated and they take time to prepare for and you shouldn’t really rush into them,” he said.
“I think anyone who’s thinking of (going) for an early election should think very carefully about it – I think it wouldn’t be a very good idea.”