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Benedict Brogan puts it starkly: "Defeat in 2015 looks certain."  Pete Hoskin declares there to be "dwindling hope for a Conservative majority".  The latest reason for this despair is what Tim Montgomerie has described as the Conservative Party's "worst single electoral setback since Black Wednesday", namely the Liberal Democrats deciding to vote against the boundary review.

Such despair is unwarranted.  It was always the case that implementing the largest spending cuts programme since the 1920s, and in general presiding over the worst economic situation in the UK since that same decade, was likely to lead to unpopularity.  I noted in 2009, in considering historical and international experience with spending cuts, that "A number of governments have benefited from successful fiscal consolidations, with voters respecting the importance of action and rewarding resolution and success. Unfortunately, none of these governments was British."  My contention was always that Cameron and Osborne were bound to become very unpopular – if they didn't want to be hated, they should have got a different job.

So unpopularity at this stage is no surprise.  Of course, just because you are unpopular that doesn't mean you're right!  It's perfectly possible to become unpopular by being incompetent or failing to act when you should or pursuing the wrong strategy.  Merely being hated by everyone should not be considered a strong indicator that you are doing well!


But in truth it is very early to despair, yet.  There doesn't have to be a General Election for three years, and fashionable opinion has it that that's much the most likely time for it.  If a week is a long time in politics, three years is an eternity.  Entire political careers last less time than that (vide Mensch); it's not terribly uncommon for Prime Ministers to last less than that (e.g. Brown, Callaghan, Hume), and the previous two Conservative Party leaders (IDS, Howard) lasted less time than that.  If recent Conservative Party history is anything to go by, it's perfectly conceivable (if unlikely) that we could change leader twice between now and 2015.

Much analysis appears predicated on the notion that we face some especially unusual psephological challenge.  But, really, we don't.  It is indeed true that in recent years the Labour Party has been able to win General Elections with a much lower vote share than the Conservative Party.  But the key reason for that is nothing to do with boundaries.  The key reason is that turnout in Labour seats is much lower than in Conservative seats.  Many Labour-inclined voters don't bother to vote.  So Labour might win a General Election with 36% of the vote to our 33%, but that is mainly because a 36% vote for Labour really means something well above 40% of the electorate supporting Labour.  We struggle to get majorities not because system is unfair to us, but because not that many voters support us.

Our key task in winning a General Election is not some manipulation of boundaries.  Neither is it forming some alliance with other parties to make up for our own unpopularity.  Our key task is to convince something above 40% of the Electorate to support us.  That is not an especially Herculean or unreasonable challenge.  Every new government that achieved a majority after the Second World War secured above 40% of the vote.  If we had got 40% of the electorate to support us in 2010 we would have won handily.

Insofar as there is any especial challenge for the next Election, it is that in Coalition we would inevitably struggle to project a clear sense of what we were about.  A majority government can point to its record; an opposition can point to its critique of the government; but a party in coalition faces inevitable unclarity about where it stands.  That's not in itself a strong reason not to be in coalition.  If the good of the country were better served by being in coalition, refusing to enter might well be punished by voters even more strongly than being vague within coalition.  But it is a challenge.

However, it's a challenge that may not last much longer.  It was always very likely that we would move to a minority government supported by confidence-and-supply for the last year leading up to a 2015 General Election.  Recent events suggest that, even if that does not become the formal situation soon it will become the de facto situation.  Lots of legislative timetable space has been created by the dropping of the Lords reform bill.  It has been suggested that this time will be occupied by some "economic regeneration" measures.  But it seems difficult to see how the Conservatives and Lib Dems will agree on these – a key reason the government's growth programme so far has been so thin is that there are pretty deep disputes between the parties on the right approach.

One way forward could be to keep the formalities of coalition, but accept the de facto confidence-and-supply status of the government by significantly restricting the government-sponsored programme, instead allowing more Parliamentary time for party-sponsored Bills.  The Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems could bring forward their own proposed Bills and they could be argued on their merits on the floor of the House.  This would allow the parties to assert their own identities and ideas.  In essence, the government would restrict itself to implementing the spending cuts and tax rises already agreed (deviating only if there were some new crisis) plus perhaps acting further in areas (such as some schools reforms and some bits of welfare reform) where the Conservatives and Lib Dems are in close agreement.  Beyond that, the legislative programme would be party-specific.

Then the Conservatives could argue their own case on Europe, Human Rights reform, House of Lords reform, the Big Society and other areas where we want to assert our own identity.  If we argue our case well and convince enough voters to support us, we can win.  If we don't, we won't.  That's not unfair or impossible.  That's democracy.

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