A snap election promises Cameron the glory he craves

by Tom Watson

The Conservatives are preparing for a general election in May. That is what a devilishly well-placed conservative insider told me in response to my “Operation Detach” column last week.

My source has been spot on in the past. He also told me that the working assumption for Andy Coulson’s departure announcement was now 25th January. He told me this to help justify his argument that an election in May was a strong possibility. Clearing the decks and all that.

I immediately dismissed the idea of an early election, but it has gnawed at me since. And the more I think about it, the more I think the logic is impeccable. It was Peter Oborne’s brilliantly incisive new year’s eve column that firmed up my thinking.

Here’s the rationale within the Cameron camp:

The Lib Dems are so damaged, they’re an unreliable partner. Clegg is in the trough of despond, providing little, if any, leadership to his troops and getting increasingly paranoid about Conservative ministers making announcements without clearing it with him. It’s getting to the point where they cannot be relied upon as the “majority” in the chamber.

I challenged Clegg in the members’ lobby over his decision to break the convention on how by-elections are called by Parliament. It wasn’t his response that was interesting. It was his demeanour. Some people find me a little brusque on occasion, but I wasn’t being rude or particularly direct with the deputy PM.

His face was pallid and drawn over with worry lines. His eyes couldn’t maintain contact with mine. He almost covered his face with his arms. It was as if he wanted to roll up into the foetal position.  He is a most unhappy man.

On the basis of a brief conversation, I strongly suspect that life on the inside is exacting a gruelling personal toll on the deputy PM. Even though I hold him in contempt, I almost feel sorry for him. He is a prisoner in a gilded cage of his own making.

Electorally, the Lib Dems are no longer the threat they were before the last election. The Tories could expect to take seats from them and firm up seats where they are in a close second place.

Peter’s column predicts that the coalition “will probably fragment, and could even collapse, leaving David Cameron marooned at the head of a tottering minority government”.

Peter misses a central point. It is hard for either leader to justify an early election after all their announcements on partnership and long-haul government.

To hold a snap election, Cameron needs the coalition to fail. That is, the conservatives need to find a point of disagreement which they can say is so fundamental that they cannot possibly acquiesce to the demands of their coalition partners. The gasket has to be seen to blow off the engine of government for the plan to work.

Their Liberal Democrats have gifted plenty of obstinate policy positions they can fall out over, should Cameron wish to pursue his plan. For weeks, I’ve been asking myself why there has been a running commentary in the papers over control orders. There’s nothing more fundamental to government than national security. Maybe this is the policy that provides the Conservatives the reason to exit the coalition? Yesterday’s announcement of further delays on the replacement will further fuel suspicion,

Though Labour is a few points ahead in the polls, Ed Miliband is not yet fully defined as a leader. He is an unknown quantity in the minds of many. A hard-hitting, well-funded election campaign could portray Ed as the risk. Labour would find it hard to counter an advertising onslaught because they are broke. The Tories are not broke. They could easily outgun Labour and the Lib Dems combined with campaign spending.

More widely, polling revealed at the Net Roots conference this weekend showed that people are beginning to move from thinking that cuts are fair and necessary, to believing that cuts are required but unfairly applied. The “too deep too soon” view is gaining currency. Most have not yet felt the full force of the cuts. When they do, the poll gap will widen for a considerable time. Which will pile more pressure on the coalition. Uncertain economic growth, huge rises in youth unemployment, inflationary pressures and interest rate rises. These are a potentially toxic combination for any incumbent government.

Right now, Cameron’s “deceit” (as Ed Miliband describes it) is still widely believed. The idea that these unprecedented cuts are required because of Labour profligacy will not last for ever. Give it another year and these will be Cameron’s cuts, not Gordon Brown’s.

The theory of an early election only works if you think that Cameron is not well endowed with positive choices. I don’t think he is.  I think he essentially has two:

1. Four further years of glowering Clegg, bleeding heart Hughes and a well-positioned Chris Huhne, combined with an uncertain position at the polls in 2015.

2. A quick election, with Clegg a national laughing stock and an electorate that doesn’t yet know Labour’s candidate for PM.

There are many reasons why my thesis can be challenged. I hope that the by-election result tomorrow dims the ardour of the Cameronistas who advise going early, for example.

From gruelling personal experience, I know that an election is never on until the very minute the prime minister says that it is. Cameron hasn’t yet finished the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat (nor answered my FoI request about it, for that matter). He may be enjoying the routine. A bird in the hand may suffice for him.

I have a hunch though. I think that he secretly feels unfulfilled. He wants to be numero uno, lord of all he surveys. Right now, he’s just the lead with a partner who went to an inferior public school. Cameron is a man who doesn’t need more money nor more power. He seeks glory. In his mind he feels he is not a proper prime minister like Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher. A bold election may be the corner piece in the complex jigsaw of Cameron’s life.

If I were him, I’d have my campaign team drawing up the electoral plan B.

Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.

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32 Responses to “A snap election promises Cameron the glory he craves”

  1. David Seymour says:

    Wishful thinking. Oborne, like the rest at the Telegraph, aren’t being insightful but driven by the desire for the coaltion to fail.
    Why would Cameron call an election when it would put Labour back in power?

  2. Quietzaple says:

    Huhne may not be so well placed.

    He is almost as old as I am, lost three councillors in Eastleigh the other day via defections, Eastleigh is a pretty marginal seat.

    2 – 1 against if Clegg went now.

  3. Sue Marsh says:

    Well, well.

    Doubtful, but delicious.

    If he does, I’ve never been convinced by the “He’ll get a majority this time” argument. (A friend and I have debated this endlessly, to be fair, he’s usually right 🙁 )

    Tell you what though, I think i’d get less ambivalence on the doorstep!! Bring it on, I say.

  4. Martin says:

    You article drifts from “a Tory insider” to “I have a hunch”. Is this just wishful thinking or a rather desperate attempt to “set the agenda”. If its the latter, forget it!!!

    Unfortunately (for you at least Tom), you Labour guys are miles away from even determining an agenda to discuss what the Labour party wants to do with itself let alone the Colalition or the country.

  5. Paul McGlade says:

    Long term, the Lib Dems have a single aim from this time in power – a proportional voting system.

    It may well have fallen to Clegg to be the sacrificial lamb to achieve this prize. Even if he sours the relationship of his party with the electorate for the next 10 years, it’d be a price worth paying for them.

    That’s the only reason you’re seeing Lib-Dems happily acting as human shields for Conservative policies and arguing for things they would never have otherwise agreed to. They need to keep the Conservatives sweet and need to show that a coalition can work. Clearly they are gambling they don’t damage themselves so much they fail to get the vote change through.

    If they don’t get electoral reform, I can’t see them stomaching the coalition any longer (unless politicians really are driven as much by ego and power as the stereotype). You may also find Lib Dems lining up at that point to spill their guts about what has been going on behind the scenes.

  6. Makes good political sense for Cameron to call one in May on paper, but I think he’ll realise that the people will see it as opportunism to utilise the FPTP system before it potentially goes.

    He also stands to risk the halting of his agenda to dismantle the welfare state if Labour win.

  7. Sebastian Michnowicz says:

    Oborne’s column is just another one in a line of various pieces showing discontent of the Tory right-wing over the coalition. The idea of a general election this May is not as mad as it sounds. I’ve done a bit of research into this in a piece that might appear in Tribune – the Tories have the most to gain from the drop in Lib Dem popularity. A poll in the Independent last week reckoned the Lib Dems would lose 42 seats, which happen to be held with majorities of 16% or less. 11 of those seats would fall to Labour on current poll ratings, 30 would go to the Tories – enough to give them a majority and that’s before you consider that they might take seats off Labour given that, as Tom says, Ed is still relatively unknown and the Tories could capitalise on this.

  8. RedRiding says:

    I don’t think Cameron and Clegg could lead their parties into a snap election.
    All of the rhetoric we have had about saving the country, that this is a 5 year deal, proposed changes to the no confidence vote threshold etc. Mean that a snap election would be personal failure for both leaders. They would either be too opportunistic to trust or seen as unable to control their parties, a rock and a hard place, neither of which would be an electoral winner.
    The only scenario would be a coup within one of the parties and a new leader unwilling to reaffirm the coalition. I don’t think the Lib Dems will do this as currently most of them will lose their seats and there aren’t enough on the Tory right (outside the Torygraph’s offices) that are prepared to bring down their own government.
    If I was a Tory MP I would be in for the long term, after all the Lib Dems are having little influence and the best bet for the party is that they get it right by 2015 and win a landslide a la Maggie in 1983.

  9. Elizannie says:

    I sincerely hope you are wrong, Tom, but have to agree with your reasoning. Other Half and I were having this discussion a couple of days ago. Personally I think we – as a party – need to summon all the media aids we can to remind the public that Cameron is not our saviour and when he says ‘We are all in this together’ he doesn’t actually count himself and his millionaire chums in the ‘We’.

  10. Matthew says:

    Very interesting blog post and I wouldn’t bet against anything. We’re in uncharted waters here.

    I do feel you missed the point that Cameron and Osborne are both pretty keen on the coalition as a way of completing their Tory modernisation program. I honestly believe they’d rather keep conceding to the Lib Dems than to the Tory right.

  11. I don’t see it. The Conservatives couldn’t get a full majority with an electorate who had yet to feel a single Tory cut, and against a deeply unpopular Gordon Brown. Lib Dem voters who feel betrayed by their party’s surrender to Cameron are hardly going to respond by voting Tory.

    Even if the public’s disquiet at the cuts is currently as minor as you suggest, the Conservatives could not reasonably bank on being more popular than before, nor that breaking the coalition would appear a principled, mature choice. Cameron would instead risk looking like a weak and incompetent leader who had failed in the task of holding the coalition together.

    It is the Liberal Democrats who might hope to salvage dignity, if not votes in the short term, by torpedoing the coalition. The Conservatives would be gambling too much for too little.

  12. Chris says:

    As a corporate communicator myself, what you folks to realize is that guys like Tom Watson and Peter Oborne don’t just make this stuff up. They get told it.

    I’m not in political communications, but corporate comms works in largely the same way. Building up relationships with sympathetic medias, and nudging them into writing the truth.

    Nobody in either camp can come out and say this. But they can nudge media commentators into doing it for them.

    The tory media, and bloggers are hinting at this for a reason.

    They’re probably being briefed on it, by folks in both parties.

    I’d be pretty amazed if the coalition lasted 5 years? Why? Sooner or later Lib Dems are going to get to a point where they have to start thinking about winning their seats.

    And the only way for a Lib Dem to win a seat, is to go after tory rivals

    I think the Libs will walk after the AV election personally. If they lose it. May sounds about right

  13. Syzygy says:

    I think I agree with pretty much all of thats been said, because there are a number of different agendas for the Tories/LDs … and each grouping’s aims would be fulfilled by one or more of these arguments.

    Personally, I think that the Osborne faction wants to make it impossible for the LP to reinstate a nationalised NHS, and put the education system back together, by getting their 20y contracts signed and sealed with private providers. Once that has been achieved, the focus will change… I think Cameron’s agenda is different in that he is largely ‘apolitical’ and is only interested in holding on to the PM role.

    This is a government of the rich, who want to make sure that the rich stay rich. The chaos that they are producing is a deliberate act of sabotage aimed at preventing a future government being able to take away their privilege.

  14. Tom Keeley says:

    David makes a good point – surely it is very unlikely that Cameron is going to call, or try and bring about an election that he would lose. The polls have been fairly constant at the 40/40/10/10 split, with a small trend towards Labour. It would be the biggest miscalculation since Brown not calling the election, for Cameron to call one now. Although with the Labour policy of not selecting candidate for seat until after the boundary review, we might be caught on the hop……

  15. Robert says:

    The way Miliband is going the Tories would end up with a coalition again with labour, Tory lab pack

  16. Chris Cook says:

    Interesting scenario, Tom, but I don’t buy it for a minute.

    The current position is just too good for Cameron to risk, and the Lib Dem leadership would rather have a few more years in (junior – but limos and red boxes are still limos and red boxes)) power – hoping that something turns up – than return permanently and prematurely to obscurity.

  17. Andy says:

    I believe that there will be a general election this year for the following reasons: .

    *Cameron and indeed Osbourne are not hated by the public yet – all that has been targetted at Clegg. They know that simply will not last and calling an election before the fire turns on them is in their interests. The last PM that failed to call an election when he was popular got a spectacular kicking from the general public when he finally went to the polls.

    *Cameron has never won the back-bench tories round to the idea of sharing power. There are too many fault lines and the longer it goes on, the more potential there is for back bench rebellion. ( How on earth did he get away with an increase to Europe?)

    *Labour is not hitting home. Johnson is a disaster as Shadow Chancellor and Miliband Junior is an unknown to the public. The party is broke and morale is low. Things can only get better for Labour, dare I say.

    In the next 4 years, a conservative victory is most likely in the next six months. Cameron would be a fool not to call one soon. It would be quite funny though if he joined Brown on the back benches as another PM who had never outright won a general election!!

  18. james says:

    “He almost covered his face with his arms. It was as if he wanted to roll up into the foetal position.”

    Is this a common reaction when you talk to your parliamentary colleagues, Tom?

  19. john shirley says:

    fascinating discussion, but I think it’s most likely Cameron will want to waituntil 2014 in the hope that there will be some growth by then, and the Tories can offer tax cuts.

  20. Emma Burnell says:

    Very interesting!

    Apologies for cross promotion, but I have blogged on my thoughts here: http://bit.ly/dU4IaD

  21. James says:

    Interesting but ridiculous. It would look like the worst sort of opportunism to the electorate, the recent generation of politicians would be mightily peed off at having to reface the electorate so soon, and the chances of an overall Tory majority are miniscule. The risk is massive, and highly likely. Both coalition parties have a clear incentive to stay in power for the full term, as it’s the only hope they have of not losing seats at the next election.

    Nice idea, would love it to be true, but I wouldn’t bet a penny on it!

  22. David Gould says:

    There’s only one reason this could happen.

    To call an election now would be suicide for both the Tories and Libdems. Remember, the electoral bias means that Cameron has to beat Labour by 8% for a majority (whereas Miliband needs to win by only 3%).

    What would make suicide worthwhile for the Tories? Keeping FPTP and its guarantee of power for the Establishment.

  23. Red Trev says:

    Although I am doubltfull about this,it might just be feasable if Cameron sees that the longer he waits the more impossible becomes the chance of securing an outright magority.It would be an all or nothing throw of the dice and yet,if there’s one thing certain about the Tories,it is that they are at their most dangerous when the percieve their back to be against the wall. Ed had better start getting some policies and raising his profile,and with some haste.I fear that if Cameron could secure a magority there really is a substantial danger that our democracy could be mortally wounded.If Cameron gets the chance to complete his jerrymandering then I fear very great violence.

  24. 720iD says:

    I ve been thinking this for a while now.

    Conservatives will want to do Rupert Murdoch a favour before they call the General Election.

  25. Barry Kirby says:

    Interesting breakdown. Your argument is convincing, and there is another good reason. Are we as a Labour Party ready for it. I would say not. It could actually make sense for Cameron to call it, knowing that the Lib Dems will implode, and that while Ed M’s strategy is a good one, its a longer term one. If he calls for May, or earlier, then he has a very good chance indeed.

    We as a party, (in my opinion) don’t want this to happen, we want to work hard at the local government level and get the Councils into shape, and make this grass roots the basis of a return to Parliament.

    Don;t get me wrong, I think we could win a General Election in May, I think the tide of public opinion is starting to balk at the cuts, the question in my mind is how will the party govern, have we had enough time to learn the lessons to do the job for more than one term?

  26. Steve O says:

    It would be an audacious move for Cameron to call a snap general election for this May, and it would make sense if they’re worried that following a wipeout in the locals the Libdems lose their nerve and decide to start either throwing their weight around, or threaten to pull out of the coalition.

    However it makes much more sense to try and soothe troubled Libdem brows after May, chuck them a few bones and keep them on board for a 2014/15 election by which time the worst of the cuts will have happened and there could be signs of real growth again (unlikely given their cuts strategy) and if Ed carries on as he has Labour will not have a convincing profile.

  27. 720iD says:

    Although one thing that contradicts this is the front loading of the cuts, which suggests coalition want to give a little back toward the end of the parliament.

  28. woodsman says:

    It’s an interesting theory but what about the fixed term parliament legislation? Once that is passed – surely before May – then Cameron won’t have the option for a snap election will he? So it would have to happen even sooner if it’s going to……

  29. Peter S says:

    If David Cameron was interested in a quick re run of the General Election then why fixed term Parliaments?

    Alright the Lib Dems will get a kicking in May, but any party in government would.
    As to losing the vote on AV, Clegg has already ruled this out as cause to leave the Coalition.

    Gordon Brown was rightly criticised for being indecisive, why should David Cameron be so labelled. He has argued to a fixed term so governments do not act for the short term.

    It’s just wishful thinking on some Labour supporters part.

  30. Paul McCrystal says:

    How does your theory stand now, following the Conservatives’ drubbing at the Oldham E & S by-election?

  31. Oscar says:

    A snap election is the last thing Cameron wants. He needs to go the full 5 years, because Labour would’ve had any election in the bag if they chose the other Milliband (who is popular if only for his silly camera poses and unusual attraction from females).

    It’s Labour’s election to lose, so Cameron has to give Ed Milliband as much time possible to make mistakes and lose votes.

    He also has to deal with the prospect, with Clegg putting himself before his party and becoming a Conservative in the eyes of the public, that Lib Dem voters (and those who voted Lib Dem just to get Gordon Brown out of Labour last election) will now all vote Labour to get Clegg out.

    This is especially boosted by Ed’s youthful student looks – he looks like he just got out of uni, this WILL win student votes especially considering the alternatives are the guy who’s cutting all the students’ money and hte guy who lied to help the guy who’s taking all their money.

    Conservatives had no chance of winning the last election (they had to hold all their seats and gain all predicted seats, which of course they didn’t and couldn’t) and now they’re going to have even fewer votes next time, unless Ed says or does a few stupid things close to election time.

  32. Bev says:

    It would be interesting to see what the Lib Dems bottom line really is. As they Libs know they would be wiped out if there was an election today, Cameron is holding all the cards. I think the tories would have to introduce the death sentence for jay walking before the libs would walk.

    But Cameron knows the tory right smell blood and a breathing down his neck…

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