by Sunder Katwala
An election this year is no longer unthinkable, writes Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley. ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie, influential champion of the Tory netroots, advises Cameron to prepare his troops. Perhaps the prime minister’s most unlikely adviser, Tom Watson, was ahead of the game.
Except that it won’t happen. (Just as economists have successfully predicted six of the last three recessions, commentators and bloggers promoting snap elections should have to declare their previous kite-flying efforts).
The most prominent objection so far is the difficulty of Mr Coalition Cameron engineering the destruction of his own government without the public seeing that he has acted in entirely bad faith. This would be Paxman’s dream “why should anybody believe a word you say” election, so brazenly have both governing parties done things which they promised not to. The prime minister who legislates for fixed term Parliaments and then runs to the country would put the seal on the most cynical interpretations of the new politics.
Perhaps a breakdown of collective responsibility and backbench rumblings will create gridlock, unless the LibDems do not simply pipe down again after May 5th. The LibDem grassroots are mobilising to seek to fillet the NHS Bill that their MPs voted for at second reading. But most Conservatives, while grumbling about the excessive influence of their junior partners, would be secretly relieved if a cosmetic pause comes closer to a full stop on reforms which the public finds incomprehensible. ‘Save Andrew Lansley’ is probably not a battle cry to win an electoral mandate.
But there is a better objection still. David Cameron hasn’t got the votes.
The Liberal Democrats certainly don’t want to face the voters anytime soon. They could lose their role in government and more than half of their MPs, probably including all of their women.
All the prime minister making that threat would have to lose is Downing Street and his political career.
The blindspot of much of the political class lies in consistently over-estimating David Cameron. He certainly looks the part as PM. He performs the public role with grace. But his record as party leader is as much about failure as success. His own side put him into TV debates to ‘seal the deal’ in 2010. He didn’t. But the assumption that he would was shared by his opponents, helping to explain why Labour didn’t prepare properly for the hung Parliament, and the LibDems made the pledge to students which would have served them well had the Tories won a small majority.
Yet everybody is doing the same thing again.
It has become a staple assumption that, had Cameron formed a minority government, he would then have swept to victory at the time of his choosing. If it was a sure thing, why didn’t it happen – and why was there so little Tory pressure to attempt it? It was because the risk was too great.
Historically, when the parties have gone back and asked the voters the same question after a hung Parliament, they have been given the same answer as the first time around. Had Cameron tried it, I have suggested before that David Miliband might now be Prime Minister.
A Tory election campaign this year would be rather less plausible than last Autumn. Ultimately, they would fall back on running against Gordon Brown and the government’s inheritance from Labour. Since that didn’t work well enough for the Tories to win when Gordon Brown was the alternative candidate, there is little reason to think the voters would find it more plausible now.
It is true that Labour is still rebuilding. If Ed Miliband’s party is more popular than Labour was at the last election – as, with 2 million LibDem voters having switched to Labour, it undoubtedly is – it is difficult to see how Cameron’s gamble could pay off.
If it didn’t come off, he’s Ted Heath, and surely on the way out.
What is the prize? Even if David Cameron gambled and won a small majority, his prize could be to be heir to John Major. Being the ally of Nick Clegg and David Laws is a much happier outcome for David Cameron than being the prisoner of his own right-wing. Being in uneasy alliance if a Huhne-Cable-Farron axis assert more control over LibDem policy may get trickier, but Vince doesn’t hate the Prime Minister anything like as viscerally as some of the 1922.
The Tory right grumbles and chunters about the way in which the LibDems constrain a proper Tory government from doing things – calling a referendum to get out of Europe; pulling out of human rights acts – which David Cameron has no intention of doing, despite the occasional nod and wink to pretend otherwise. He can afford more nods and winks, only while he stays in Coalition, and so can be understood to be unable to act on them.
Cameron’s current willingness to emphasise Tory tunes is a good short-term strategy to get Tory voters to go out in vote in lower turnout elections for local government and on the voting system.
If he over-gears it, it will deepen what his most trusted strategists see as his long-term strategic problem with the voters who wanted change in 2010 yet didn’t switch to the Tories. The advice to Cameron to go for it jars with Downing Street’s analysis of why they didn’t win a majority last May.
Andrew Cooper has identified public sector workers, Scots, northerners, ethnic minorities and Londoners as those who weren’t convinced. They were perhaps wise not to believe David Cameron’s promise to do what he said, and deal with the deficit without needing to cut frontline services at all. Cooper outlined the most difficult to shift perception being that the Tories would, in a crunch, look out most for the rich and powerful. This used to keep David Cameron awake at nights. It would therefore make sense for him to devote his Premiership to proving that isn’t true. As work in progress goes, that might not be going so well.
The Coalition gave Cameron another chance to reassert his centrist credentials. Peter Mandelson says, in the new preface to his paperback edition, that the prime minister has seized the opportunity. The electorate doesn’t agree. In fact, they see Cameron as having shifted right in power, and no longer perceive him as more centrist than his party.
So, to most people, this already looks very much like the Tory-led government it is. That is why it has high approval ratings from Tory voters, and much lower ones even from that half of the LibDem vote which is sticking with them. It has looked pretty reckless – on Osborne’s economic strategy, the NHS reforms and the forests sell-off. The opportunity to unleash the Tories properly appeals strongly to those who voted enthusiastically for the Tories. They are not the voters he needs.
What this is really about is power within the Coalition. Potential LibDem power will probably never be greater than it was just before the marriage was contracted. But the LibDems are ditching Clegg’s strategy of owning the whole coalition and not emphasising their specific contribution to it, for fear that this will kill them. The pressure is to assert yellow interests more. The threat of breakdown and facing the electorate sets the limits on how far this could be pushed. Wielded too easily in a deadlocked Cabinet Committee, it may become clear that the nuclear option is a bluff. However, the Tory backbenchers do know that they can get away with undermining any cherished LibDem project – perhaps House of Lords reform especially – with impunity, because the Liberal Democrats can not afford to bring down the Coalition either.
The Tories have a plan to win a majority – but they are a long way from being able to bring it to fruition. They want to fight on the old electoral system – but on the new boundaries. They need an economic recovery to return to growth. They want to build a war chest from cuts to offer tax cuts at the election. They need to look competent on issues like the NHS, and events which may yet reshape the Parliament. Still, David Cameron will need to get up towards 40% of the vote, increasing his party’s share in power as no post-war premier has done before him.
Political opponents should not underestimate the Tory long-term attempt. But David Cameron is perhaps lucky that everybody always assumes he holds all the cards. It strengthens him. He can see the hand he has been dealt – and that it looks a lot weaker than everybody else seems to think.
Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the fabian society. He blogs his personal views – read more at www.nextleft.org.