by Kevin Meagher
Received opinion, that fluttering butterfly, often dazzles and deceives.
Two bits of conventional wisdom are doing the rounds at the moment; both are hopelessly wrong. The first is a feeling that this government will fall before 2015. The second is a prediction of David Cameron’s early demise.
First the government. A poll in the Guardian the other day shows only 16 per cent of voters expect the coalition to last until May 2015 – just half the 33 per cent who had said the same thing to pollsters ICM two weeks before.
With coalition rows about House of Lords reform and parliamentary boundary changes dominating the airwaves before the summer recess it’s hardly surprising that onlookers question its longevity.
But soundings off from within the government are just that, exuberant rows. No terminal schism is in the offing. There is nowhere for either partner to go. This remains the immutable truth of British politics. Any early collapse of the government would precipitate a general election where both parties would suffer.
The Lib Dems flirt with electoral annihilation and struggle these days to sustain a clear lead over UKIP. They are in no shape to go to the country and need to play for time. What is more, most of the politically painful aspects of the coalition’s programme are now in the past. For Nick Clegg’s troops, things can only get better.
The second fallacy is that David Cameron might not see out his term of office, shaded out by the golden lustre of his Eton contemporary Boris Johnson or knifed by his right wing critics who see his hybrid government as insufficiently Conservative.
A YouGov poll from last weekend shows Labour’s lead at 12 per cent. But when party labels were replaced by party leaders’ names the gap shrunk to six per cent. As John Rentoul at the Independent notes, the most interesting thing about the poll “was how much of an asset David Cameron still is to his party”.
The same poll also showed that 46 per cent of voters thought Cameron was ‘well suited’ to being prime minister while an equal 46 per cent found him ‘not well suited’. Asked the same question, just 31 per cent of respondents said Ed Miliband was well suited against 59 per cent who thought he wasn’t.
Two things are worth bearing in mind. First, although Cameron is now gambling everything on an economic upswing to stay in Number 10, it’s possible he might just pull it off. Even if recovery is painfully slow, we have nearly three years of this parliament left to go. John Major managed to win an election coming out of a recession twenty years ago by portraying Labour as shaky on economic detail and not worth the risk.
“Better the devil you know” is hardly inspirational stuff, but, like negative campaigning in the US, always works. 2015 feels like it is shaping up to resemble 1992, hence the need for a restoration of Labour’s economic credentials.
Second, Cameron has no natural predators. There is no-one to replace him from within his party; no natural successor and no prince over the water. For all last week’s hyperbole, Boris Johnson is not so much over the water as stood on another continent. He is not an MP and has just been re-elected to serve a four-year term as London Mayor. He is no threat and will be old news by the time he gets his chance.
Meanwhile George Osborne’s future is utterly symbiotic with Cameron’s. If the economy does not improve both men are dead in the water. William Hague appears semi-detached these days, while no-one of sound mind mentions Jeremy Hunt as a potential PM any more.
To his party opponents, Cameron’s failure to win a majority in 2010 is testament to his fallibility. But this weakness could be turned into a strength. Routinely more popular than his party, Cameron should hold a gun at his head and remind his internal critics they would be worse off without him. The Cameron brand has more value than the Conservative one. If he fails, they certainly fail.
The scale of the changes Cameron wants to see in this less than propitious economic environment means this will always be a government of wildly oscillating fortunes. This is big stakes politics where danger lurks in every policy detail. Never can any Cabinet have had so many members take a turn in sitting on the ejector seat. Cable, Warsi, Hunt, Lansley – all could have been forced out this year. Laws and Huhne already have been sent flying.
Disregard silly season fluff about Boris and Nick, splits and early elections: David Cameron will still be prime minister in 2015. It will have been a roller-coaster ride to be sure, but like a rusty old gate he will hang on in there doing his job for longer than appears possible.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut