By Tim Montgomerie
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Welcome back! I hope all readers had a great Christmas.
While we were eating turkey and mince pies most of the newspapers were still publishing. The Sunday Times even produced its first ever Christmas Day edition. Dan Sabbagh explains (within a fascinating review of the newspaper industry's economics) that one of the reasons so many newspapers now produce Boxing Day editions is so new Kindle and iPad owners can browse fresh content.
Anyhow, I digress. The Christmas period's political news is summarised on today's homepage and worthy of particular mention is the ICM poll that appeared in yesterday's Guardian. That newspaper is acknowledging that the EU veto has produced a "sustained" improvement in David Cameron's personal ratings (YouGov had already found something similar). I certainly didn't expect the Tories to be level-pegging with Labour at this stage of the austerity programme. The year has ended in a more encouraging way than many of us dared hope.
The Tories' good ratings have fueled suspicions that it might be in David Cameron's interest to engineer an early general election. In a well-read article for The Independent Ian Birrell – a friend and former speechwriter to David Cameron – made the argument. Birrell suggested that the Liberal Democrats have become a wholly negative force inside the Coalition:
"They have lost their nerve along with any sense of what they stand for. Since the referendum they have been a destructive presence, endlessly opposing ideas but rarely offering constructive alternatives. "Always negative, never putting forward anything positive," as one key insider put it. The only coalition policy a Conservative administration would not have introduced has been the welcome raising of tax thresholds for low earners. The Liberal Democrats have blocked deregulation designed to spur economic growth, stymied decentralisation to increase public participation in politics and opposed vital public-service reform."
Now, he suggested, might be the time to end that negative influence and for Cameron to lead a truly reforming Conservative majority government.
In the latest ConservativeHome survey Tory members were asked what they thought would be the outcome of a General Election that was held in the next six months. 61% thought it would result in a Tory majority (click on graph to enlarge):
Cameron is very unlikely to risk an election even though the working relations inside the Coalition are the poorest they have ever been according to inside sources. There has been a lot of speculation that Clegg might seek to reverse the EU veto. That seems unlikely to me. Cameron knows that he'd face a heavy political price for reversing something that has been so popular. More likely – as Ian Birrell fears – is that the resentful Liberal Democrats will exact revenge by blocking other reforms that are desired by the Tory Mainstream and are necessary for Britain's economic health.
Cameron won't engineer an early election because he wants to fight the next election on the new constituency boundaries – boundaries which might give the Tories up to 20 extra seats. He also knows that the Liberal Democrats will do better than the national opinion polls suggest. Polling by Lord Ashcroft in September found that support for a Lib Dem MP grew by THIRTEEN per cent when they were actually named. There is also the question of what the Tory manifesto would say about an issue like Europe. Could Cameron come up with a line that would keep the party's internal coalition together?
Downing Street still believes that the next election will be hard to win and Osborne, in particular, doesn't want to antagonise the Lib Dems and lose the possibility of a continuing relationship with them in the event of a second hung parliament. There won't be an early election but, unless a new grand bargain can be forged, the Coalition will continue in an increasingly miserable mood.