It’s just a few months out from a General Election, and the Conservatives have consistently been on 32 per cent in the opinion polls since the 2012 Budget. Many opinion polls predict a Labour majority. Even if Labour were short of a majority, almost no-one seriously believes the Lib Dems will choose to form a Coalition with the Conservatives again next time – to do so would destroy their independence and leave them permanently identified as a Conservative off-shoot.
If the Lib Dems are in coalition with anyone it will be with Labour, meaning that the Conservatives will need to have more seats than Labour and the Lib Dems combined even to run a minority government (with the SNP likely to be the only party with whom Conservatives could form some useful post-electoral accommodation).
Meanwhile UKIP erodes Conservative support further by the day, with some opinion polls suggesting large swathes of southern English voters are defecting to UKIP en masse. More MPs may follow. For some time, many commentators assumed that UKIP’s vote would fall back to below 6 per cent at the General Election whilst the Lib Dems would pick up from the 8 per cent they’ve sat at for more than three years to perhaps 15 per cent or more, at the expense of Labour. Few in Conservative circles believe that now.
Yet there is a palpable absence of desperation in Conservative circles. There is none of the energy of 1995-1997; none of the agitations for this or that change or direction; none of the imaginative new policy proposals in think-tank publicatioans. There’s barely even any positioning for a post-election leadership contest.
On the face of it, this is very strange. After all, David Cameron has been very unpopular in certain Conservative circles almost from the beginning and faced widespread opposition across many fronts from 2010 to early 2013. He was opposed on forming a Coalition with the Lib Dems, on agreeing to the AV referendum, on agreeing to House of Lords reform, on not renegotiating our position within the EU, on spending cuts being too slow and tax rises too quick, on not cutting spending on the NHS and international aid, on gay marriage.
The opinion of many Conservatives about him as leader has been as bad, at times, as of any leader in living memory – even John Major only sometimes attracted similar levels of vituperation in private discussions with Conservative supporters. Yet here we are, looking like losing, and everyone seems pretty happy, really. Why?
I see three main reasons. First, although there are many regrets about what has gone before, most of the Party (including those that have been most opposed to Cameron) is pretty pleased with the general forwards-looking stance we have now on most points.
AV, gay marriage etc. are behind us. Long gone are the halcyon days of 2006 when Cameron’s team was matching Labour’s spending plans and saying Conservatives needed to move on from an obsession with economics to a more “socio-centric” form of politics. Now we boast of how much we have cut public spending, of how much more we will cut it next Parliament, of how much more we have cut spending and the deficit than Labour would have done.
Long gone too are the days of “stopping banging on about Europe”. Now we promise an in/out referendum and talk about it until we are as blue in the face as in the rosette. Though not to my personal taste, most supporters are happy that Conservatives have long since ceased to be embarrassed about opposing immigration (though as yet they lack any plans for how to achieve this).
Again, not to my personal taste, but most Conservatives are very happy to be the party of being tough on welfare, cutting benefits levels and imposing caps. They may not trust Cameron on these matters, but they think they own him now, so have little reason to oppose him.
The second big reason for cheerfulness is that Conservatives feel that despite starting with the disastrous economic situation of 2010 we have been getting growth of three per cent per year, unemployment below six per cent and avoided any big bank collapse or sovereign debt crisis. We have done this even as our major partners in the Eurozone have staggered from financial crisis to recessionary crisis to deflationary crisis, and those European governments that insisted that deficit cuts were not necessary have all reversed their position under market pressure.
If achieving so much on the economy is not rewarded by voters even when our Labour opponents are so devoid of any alternative plan at all, then voters will deserve what they get.
The third reason is perhaps the most important and in some ways both the most interesting and most disturbing. It is this: Since the 1970s, the only government Conservatives have had that they really disliked and felt could have been better was the Major government of 1992-1997. For 35 and more years, losing the General Election hasn’t been that big a deal for us. So we aren’t especially scared of losing. We aren’t used to the thought that losing the election would mean that much we valued changing – or at least no more than the disliked changes we have already been used to seeing under Conservative governments.
A reason that’s disturbing is that it might well be wrong. I suspect an Ed Miliband majority government would change things in ways that Conservatives disliked much more than we expect. Let’s not find out if I’m right.