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.