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A snap election is no longer unthinkable – but it won’t happen

26/04/2011, 03:10:58 PM

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. (more…)

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