The Daily Mail this morning follows our double-barrelled lead of Tuesday morning (see here from Sir Andrew Green and here from me) on the entry to Britain in January of Romanians and Bulgarians – splashing on the subject on the front page with a special poll of its own. It is a reminder that David Cameron faces the possibility of a nightmare six months: an “NHS crisis” to end 2013, a big East European influx to begin 2014, and UKIP topping the poll in next May’s elections for the European Parliament. Nick Boles’s extraordinary speech earlier this week was also a reminder of the long-term background against which this next period will be set – the disunity of the right (with UKIP gaining more support from former Conservative votes than those of the other mainstream parties); the unity of the left (with left-wing former Liberal Democrat voters decamping to Labour); the more efficient distribution of Labour’s vote (which makes a Tory majority in 2015 most unlikely), and the long-term trends that afflict the Conservatives – the near-wipeout in Scotland and northern urban seats, our lamentable record with ethnic minority voters, and the relative reluctance of voters to back us compared to Labour. In response to the Boles speech earlier this week, I pointed out that on present trends with younger voters, the Party is heading for the Dignitas door.
All this is true, but it is none the less possible to glimpse, above this bleak and drear landscape, a hint of blue sky. Ed Miliband effectively “won” the conference season with his bold, cynical and unworkable plan for an energy bill price freeze, and the poll gap between the two main parties has been widening again: Anthony Wells of YouGov records Labour’s last three poll leads as seven, nine and six per cent respectively, enough for a very large Miliband majority in 2014. But, for the short-term at least – that is, for the period up to and including the 2015 election – the old saying is true: things are never as good as they seem…and things are never as bad as they seem. The economy is improving. Living standards are likely to rise as next May approaches. And although some of Miliband’s poll ratings have improved, they’re still lower than Cameron’s in several key areas – including who would make the best Prime Minister. The Prime Minister and George Osborne will fight a 1992-type election on the argument that the keys shouldn’t be given back to the people who crashed the car. All in all, it is very hard to believe that there won’t have been a Tory poll recovery in a year’s time. My view is on the record: I think that the structural factors I describe above make a Conservative majority in 2015 next to impossible. But that doesn’t mean that Cameron can’t be Prime Minister after the next election.
In other words, don’t discount the possibility of the Tories coming back in 2015 as the largest single party, and governing either as a minority administration or in another coalition (probably a rehash of this one, if Conservative MPs and Liberal Democrat members will bear it). Cameron could yet be Prime Minister for ten years…without ever having won an election.