By Tim Montgomerie
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Stephan Shakespeare, CEO of YouGov and ConservativeHome columnist, was one of three speakers at last Wednesday evening's How Can The Conservatives Win The Next Election? panel event. I have already briefly reviewed the contributions from Chris Grayling and Matthew Elliott.
Stephan began by arguing that, while there was much uncertainty, he thought the most likely scenario was that David Cameron would still be Prime Minister after the next election. He reprised the main message of his column from last Tuesday and its conclusion that the Tory willingness to make tough decisions – in which Cameron enjoys a 5-to-1 advantage over Ed Miliband – "could be a very valuable perception if at election time people still feel as insecure as they do now". He urged the party not to worry about being likeable but to focus on level-headed competence.
But if Cameron is, in Stephan's view, lilkely to remain PM he thinks it unlikely that he'll be leader of a majority Conservative government. He points to four factors that may well prevent Cameron from winning enough extra Tory seats:
"1) It is very unlikely that Labour will go backwards at the next election.
2) The boundary changes may not happen.
3) The LibDems are likely to recover at least a little (and in any case will do better in their strongholds than the national vote suggests).
4) Unexpected events are more likely to favour Labour – I simply invoke the principle of mean reversion."
It is, therefore, in Cameron's interest to focus on maintaining friendly relations with the Liberal Democrats rather than taking risky steps that will probably not produce a Tory government but may push the Liberal Democrats into Labour's arms. That is Stephan's assessment of Cameron's calculation but not necessarily the course that Stephan would pursue himself. A factor that may be in Cameron's mind is whether he would prefer to rely on Laws et al or Brady et al for getting his legislation passed.
But let's look for a moment at that word 'risky' and examine which is the riskier option for Cameron – maximising the possibilities for continuing coalition or maximising the possibility of a Tory majority.
Stephan Shakespeare is undoubtedly right that there are big risks in going for majority and potentially, therefore, going for broke. The "EU veto moments", recommended by Chris Grayling, might help to maximise the Tory vote but they are also likely to upset the Liberal Democrats. The Tories cannot easily win an election outright if they don't pour resources into LibCon marginals but if they adopt a "no mercy" strategy against Lib Dem MPs and those MPs survive they might be less favourable to a Conservative alliance afterwards. They might but it's also possible that Lib Dem MPs are grown up enough to understand the rules of the game and forgive necessary electioneering.
But the risks don't all run one way. There are at least two big risks with a strategy that seeks to appease the Lib Dems, however, in the hope that a blue/yellow coalition would continue:
- First of all there are good strategic reasons for the Lib Dems to choose Labour after the next election if the parliamentary arithmetic allows. If they form another alliance with the Conservatives they risk permanently alientating left-leaning voters. Given that most Lib Dem members lean Leftwards themselves this would be uncomfortable for Clegg's party (if Clegg survives and Deputy Leader Simon Hughes isn't conducting hung parliament negotiations). The Lib Dems had little choice but to choose an alliance with David Cameron after the last election result. If Nick Clegg had formed an alliance with the unpopular Gordon Brown the combined Labour and Lib Dem vote in the Commons would still have been short of a majority.
- Second Cameron risks a collapse in the Tory vote if he again avoids tackling issues such as Europe, immigration, crime and strengthening family life. Conservative HQ will attempt to solidify the Tory vote with 1992-inspired attacks on Ed Miliband and on Balls-o-nomics, none of which have really started yet. Tory voters gave Cameron the benefit of the doubt at the last election when they were determined to get rid of Gordon Brown. If he runs another Big Society-style election campaign a good number will drift to UKIP or simply stay-at-home.
Cameron doesn't have an easy choice and for the moment he'll keep all options open. Tory sources tell me that the party probably won't choose its key election messages until autumn next year.