A Conservative overall majority seems impossible. Not since 1974 has an incumbent government increased its share of the vote in a general election and the electorate are not exactly clamouring for a re-run of the last five years.
Peter Mandelson, Prospect, 11 December 2014
When Samantha Cameron laid the pigs in blankets on the table this Christmas, who could have blamed her husband for cracking one helluva self-satisfied grin? Twelve months ago political commentators’ most oft-uttered prediction for the outcome of the 2015 general election was a hung parliament: Dave the moderniser would once again fail to lead the Conservative Party to an outright majority. As it was, the Tories increased their share of the vote (albeit by a mere 0.8 per cent), and the vagaries of the electoral system returned Cameron to Number 10 with an additional 28 MPs.
We’ve chosen to single out Lord Mandelson from the many false psephological prophets who predicted otherwise, but in fairness to New Labour’s self-proclaimed ‘Third Man’ he was no more optimistic about his own side gaining a majority. Nor did he lack support across the political divide. Here’s Paul Goodman of ConservativeHome, writing for the Telegraph during the dying days of 2012: ‘Two years out from 2015, one fact is already evident: David Cameron will not win an overall majority.’ Or how about a despairing Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, only a fortnight before polling day: ‘how can a reforming Prime Minister get so much right, and be thrown out by voters?’
So widespread was the view that a Tory triumph was as fantastical a notion as a flying pig that some scribblers filed premature obituaries. Although couched in terms of ‘how history will remember him, whatever happens in May’, Rafael’s Behr’s 6 January verdict that ‘Cameron’s legacy will be a collection of tactical manoeuvres, with as many prominent surrenders as victories’ had a distinct tone of finality. Presumably the sayings of Alan Partridge have been much in vogue on Downing Street since election night: ‘Get a knife and fork, and a plate, put your words on that plate, add a bit of humble pie and eat it’.
There were, of course, a few voices – other than Tory spokespeople – who were prepared to predict a true blue government. Lion & Unicorn’s own Alwyn Turner has been the first, second and third to point out that he read the runes correctly, by sticking to a 2005 prediction of a two-term Cameron premiership. Matthew Parris wrote in the Times on 21 March that he thought the Tories were ‘going to win, and win well… leaving Labour trailing so badly that the election is seen on all sides as having given only the Conservative party any right to govern.’ And despite a reticence to step much beyond the polling data (as is proper for an academic), Glen O’Hara eventually concluded that not only would Labour fail to attain a majority, but that a Tory administration was more likely. (Toby Young also called it right, although this football analogy allows us to write him off as a tribalist – and if not that, well, then as a Toby Young.)
The conventional wisdom was, however, that Britain was heading for another coalition, quite possibly a Lib-Lab-Nat pact with Ed Miliband as prime minister. And for confounding that ‘wisdom’, Lion & Unicorn bestows its award for Politician of the Year (living) on David Cameron.
Not that it was a notably glorious victory. The charge that his has been one of the jammiest premierships of modern times will surely stick. In particular, he has been fortunate in his opponents, all of whom did their bit to ensure his return to office.
The other great psephological cliché of the general election campaign was that no party trailing on both leadership and economic credibility in the opinion polls has ever won at the ballot box. And thus it proved, with the unconvincing Ed Miliband and the divisive Ed Balls steering Labour to its second worst defeat since 1983. (Note to pundits: data on voters’ attitudes immediately prior to past elections ought to be more instructive than statistics drawn solely from the outcomes – it’s the difference between knowing a horse’s form and learning the beast is lame.)
Also helpful in eroding the opposition’s chances were Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon and the Greens (Natalie Bennett notwithstanding). But perhaps the most underappreciated contribution to Cameron’s return to power was that made by Nick Clegg. The Liberal Democrats lost 4.42 million voters during the last parliament, much reducing a crucial variable in the arithmetic that had hitherto prevented a Tory majority since 1997.
Moreover, the formation of the Con-Lib coalition in 2010 not only gifted Cameron his prime ministerial aura, it also enabled him to ‘detoxify’ further the Conservative ‘brand’. It seemed much harder to consider the party irredeemably cruel when it had introduced the pupil premium, free school meals, an increased personal allowance and gay marriage. These complemented and amplified existing Cameronite policies (let’s please ditch the unfunny term ‘Cameroon’) such as the triple-lock on the value of the state pension and the ring-fencing of spending on the NHS and international aid, and provided a record to justify the prime minister’s long-standing claim to be ‘a modern, compassionate Conservative’. Meanwhile, the comfortable Commons majority brought by the Lib Dems insulated him against the fallout from this modernising project among his backbenchers and the Tory rank and file.
As Lion & Unicorn has noted previously, Cameron has presided over an exodus of Conservative members, many of whom decamped directly to UKIP. These were the ‘haters’ (to use the contemporary idiom), those who obsessed over the European Union, immigration, homosexuality, single parents, Muslims, grammar schools, foreign aid, hanging, the right to smack children, and all the other issues that provided the unpublished but very public manifesto of the ‘nasty party’. With them gone, the Conservatives look and sound far more palatable to centrist voters. Even better, Nigel and the ‘People’s Army’ have out-nastied the nasties.
Cameron has since distanced himself from his 2006 comment that UKIP is a bunch of ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’, but he understands the benefit to the Tories of a more nationalistic, less disciplined party to their right. Contrast his most recent conference speech, calling for an end to discrimination on grounds of race, gender, sexuality, religion and disability, with Nigel Farage’s repeated remarks about ‘foreigners with HIV’. The prime minister may have proven his liberal credentials with the assistance of Nick Clegg, but they were not forced on him by the Lib Dem leader and he has no intention of relinquishing them.
There is, of course, an alternative story to be told about the last five years; one in which the ‘new politics’ proclaimed in the Downing Street rose garden in 2010 was a ‘bluff’, to quote Polly Toynbee. This is the version of recent history in which Cameron is the heir to Margaret Thatcher, not Tony Blair, and has led an often incompetent government intent upon demonising welfare recipients, carving up the NHS, privatising England’s forests, and rewarding the rich (Rupert Murdoch in particular). In short, there’s the David Cameron who okayed the bedroom tax.
At numerous points during the last parliament this account threatened to tarnish the Tory leader. As might have, in other circumstances, his government’s failure to eliminate the deficit and rebalance the economy – the supposed raison d’être of the coalition. But in the final analysis Cameron still seemed the more competent leader.
He was also the more cynical. The Tories’ exploitation of English disgruntlement at Scottish nationalism was effective, as well as ruthless. And while their election mantra, ‘the long-term economic plan’, could have appeared laughable in light of the chancellor’s repeated relaxations of fiscal austerity and fuelling of a property boom, to many voters it was a reassuring message at a time when the recovery was widely regarded as insecure.
To boot, Cameron had made a virtue of correcting his more ideological missteps – of turning sows’ ears into silk purses, if you like. Caroline Spelman’s 2011 plan to sell off those forests was shelved and seems (following a joke in George Osborne’s autumn statement) to have little chance of being dusted down; the silliest blunders of the 2012’s ‘omnishambles’ Budget were dropped; and Andrew Lansley’s potentially toxic NHS ‘reforms’ were watered-down. As for the assault on welfare, Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘universal credit’ is yet to become, well, universal.
Under Cameron, ministers got used to saying ‘we got this one wrong’, and it appears the public didn’t much mind. Indeed, a Tory government willing to make U-turns looked less like the Thatcherite bogeyman many had feared – as all knew, the Lady had insisted she was never for turning.
It took 10 years, but by 7 May David Cameron had finally done enough to dispel the suspicion – and in some quarters the hatred – of the Tories that had made them unelectable for much of the previous quarter century. He brought home the bacon. And, in light of another erroneous prediction – that his was destined to be a one-term government, put out of power by the very austerity it had been installed to enact – this was no small feat. Certainly it is more impressive than winning the most dismal leadership contest in the Labour Party’s history (sorry, Jeremy).
Whether Cameron will build a lasting legacy from his victory – or merely fulfil the predictions of Rafael Behr’s obituary – is, of course, yet to be seen.
The evidence from the eight months since the general election is mixed. The rhetorical bid to make the Conservatives the workers’ party and the avowed ambition of building a high-skill, high-wage, high-productivity economy sit awkwardly with the abortive attempt to reduce tax credits. Similarly the spectacle of George Osborne outsourcing British energy policy to China, while the current-account deficit worsens and steel plants close, hardly betokens the once-promised ‘march of the makers’. The suspicion has to be that, on the economic front, the electorate has been sold a pig in a poke. Britain is back to its debt habit, and as we enter the eighth year since the financial crisis we should expect trouble ahead.
But despite the government’s apparent focus on deficit reduction, it is on social and foreign policy that Cameron is likely to be judged. The upheavals in schools, health and welfare unleashed by Michael Gove, Andrew Lansley and Iain Duncan Smith respectively are still playing out, and may yet reanimate the memory of the uncaring Tories of old. Meanwhile, current policy on housing is inflating a bubble, rather than building homes, and the government seems devoid of ideas on how to address the public’s mounting unease at the crisis in social care.
Other domestic challenges may arrive more suddenly. Perhaps the National Grid is right to be so adamant that it’ll keep the lights on this winter. Perhaps the current wave of storms and flooding will soon blow over and be forgotten (at least in places that are unaffected). Perhaps London Transport won’t collapse under the strain of record numbers travelling on the Underground. Perhaps the repeatedly threatened strikes by doctors and nurses will continue to be staved off at the last moment. But if one or more of these – or other crises in the country’s essential infrastructure – should materialise, there could be serious political consequences. As was seen in 1974 and 1979, the electorate doesn’t look favourably on governments that fail to ensure the smooth running of society’s basic requirements.
As for foreign affairs, there are numerous dangers in the creeping escalation of Britain’s involvement in the Syrian civil war; the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean will continue to generate distressing headlines; and HM Government’s relations with regimes such as Saudi Arabia and China may yet be the cause of great embarrassment, if not outrage.
But such matters will be as nothing compared to Europe.
The coming referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union will be the last great test of Cameron as a politician. Indeed, the task of winning it rests with him to an extent he could not have anticipated before the general election, when the prospect of the Labour Party choosing a left-wing Eurosceptic as its leader was not even a matter of idle speculation. That the British will vote to ‘remain’ part of the EU is still the more likely outcome, but whether this will be a victory for the prime minister is far less certain.
A small majority, following a lacklustre repatriation of powers from Brussels, will do nothing to end the euro wars within the Tory Party. Nor will it settle Britain’s relationship with the continent for the long term. Instead it will anger and embolden Conservative Eurosceptics, potentially setting the party back on a course to the nasties just as it prepares to choose its next leader.
The best result – for Cameron’s reputation and for the electoral fortunes of his party (if not for the country) – would be a win comparable to, or greater than, the 67 per cent Harold Wilson secured in the 1975 referendum. Yet more important than a conclusive margin is that the prime minister is seen to have faced down his internal opponents in the most convincing and crushing manner possible.
One of the past premiers to whom Cameron has been most frequently compared, Harold Macmillan, once remarked privately that ‘It never hurt the Party to split over something that was really in the national interest.’ Macmillan was talking about the European issue and invoking the precedent of Robert Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws. If Cameron wishes to vouchsafe his still fragile detoxification project, and re-establish the Conservatives as the natural party of government for a generation, he should heed Supermac and seize the opportunity presented by the referendum campaign to dare what remains of his hard right to decamp. A Tory party without the likes of Liam Fox, Owen Patterson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Bill Cash might be a less colourful beast, but it would be one that fewer voters would need to hold their noses to support. And the prime minister would finally have proven himself to be a leader of real nerve and principle, not a political piggy in the middle.
Right now, having confounded the soothsayers by winning an outright majority, David Cameron has put his obituary on hold. Over the coming year we will discover whether he can defy another cliché: Enoch Powell’s dictum that all political lives end in failure.
See also: Politician of the Year (dead)