The Conservative Party has thus far been extremely fortunate in its opponents.
Labour are unable to even start agreeing what went wrong, as evidenced by the continuing deep divides over the simple question of whether they spent too much when they were last in power. Worse, they are under the political and financial thumb of Len McCluskey, a man who Jim Murphy said “could pick the wrong winner in a one-horse race” (a quality he demonstrated when Gordon Brown stood uncontested for the Labour leadership).
UKIP have entered into a bitter bout of in-fighting which makes the Conservative Party of the 1990s look like a pacifists’ convention at a soft-play centre. With Farage promising to lead his party for 20 years, his allies doing their best to stamp out any competing ideas about the party’s future or philosophy and people like Paul “Gobby” Lambert, the veteran BBC journalist who left his career to become their Communications Director, apparently regretting their choice, it is a recipe for stultifying the “People’s Army” just at the moment when it has reached its biggest ever vote.
What remains of the Lib Dems look set to reposition themselves back where they feel most comfortable, on the centre left and out of contention for Tory votes. If, as seems perfectly possible, McCluskey wins out in the Labour leadership race then they will be targeting the voters deterred by his hard Left agenda.
This is good news and potentially bad news. Good, because it expands the window of opportunity – to carve out a governing agenda, to communicate our positive message, to make structural changes such as boundary reform – which the General Election victory represents. Potentially bad, because it also dangles two enticements in front of the new Conservative Government. The first is the risky feeling that this was an overwhelming victory, rather than a close-run thing, which could produce overconfidence. The second enticement is the illusion that our opponents will always be this weak, tempting Tories to spend this time celebrating rather than acting. Neither is true – like a Roman Emperor at a triumph we could do with having someone at our side to whisper in our collective ear that, despite everything, we are still human and this good luck will inevitably end one day.
Such a fortunate time suggests two guiding principles for the next couple of months.
First, use every minute wisely. It might seem obvious, but it bears repeating. In 2010 the new Tory coalition ministers were obsessed with Tony Blair’s regret that he had squandered his early years, in which his authority was at its peak. They were right to learn the lesson, but not always right in the flurry of legislation they proposed. Some projects (forestry reform, anyone?) turned into running battles and were eventually ditched. This was a survivable loss in itself but it harmed us on our key strength, competence, and cost the Government the willingness of backbench MPs to fight publicly for reforms lest they look stupid when the projects were abandoned later. We need tight prioritisation and even tighter communications to keep the momentum going and avoid becoming bogged down. Paul Goodman will be making essential suggestions for what those priorities should be in our new “Securing the Majority” series, which starts today.
Second, where possible keep our opponents confounded. Such a tactical goal should of course remain secondary to strategic aims, but it should always be seen as a helpful extra. For example, I suggested last week that the Northern Economic Powerhouse could also function to strike a blow at the heart of Labour’s support in the former coalfields. Other opportunities will present themselves – not least on boundary reform, for example, which is both right and devastating to a still-reeling Opposition. I’ll repeat the term I used above – the election has granted us a precious window of opportunity, and our opponents have extended it by their reaction to defeat. If we can keep them from rallying their troops then that window can be renewed, which is all to the good.