Mark Fox is Chief Executive of the Business Services Association and a former Parliamentary Candidate. He writes here in a personal capacity.
Thursday’s UK wide elections provide a fascinating insight, one year in to the Parliament, into the strengths and weaknesses of the country’s political parties.
London apart, Labour is struggling to hold ground. The fall to third place in Scotland continues the seismic realignment of party allegiance, which began under Gordon Brown and which has now seen the SNP embark on an unprecedented third term in government.
The surprise is how well the Conservative vote held up nationwide. Six years into government and the party’s electoral support remains robust.
Despite a long period of tough budgeting, difficult policy decisions and the continuing and increasingly personal arguments about the European Union voters still clearly retain confidence in David Cameron, his government and leadership.
This ought to provide him with a renewed sense of confidence and purpose as he moves through the referendum period and into the final years of his Premiereship.
In Scotland Ruth Davidson has led the party into a strong position in the Edinburgh Parliament. She has done this by strength of leadership, building up personal credibility and trust, and exemplifying an approach to politics that clearly resonates with the electorate.
If Cameron had any sense this weekend he would head up to Edinburgh and join Ruth Davidson in doing what he failed to do in the days after winning the independence referendum: personally thanking those who voted Conservative.
Rupert Harrison, George Osborne’s former Chief of Staff, who holds no formal position in the party’s inner councils but remains a key person to watch and is a person of immense influence, summed up the elections in this way:
“Scotland by far the most significant of today’s election results: means 2020 general election will be re-run of 2015 whoever is Labour leader.”
In other words whatever Labour does, it can’t win a General Election without Scotland and clearly as Labour can’t win Scotland the Conservatives are set for third term – or second, depending on how you want to count it.
It is right to be calm and confident when surveying the electoral scene this weekend. Twice in a year the Party has exceeded expectations at the polls, and this is a great tribute to the Prime Minister and his team.
But there is a fine line between calm confidence and insouciance.
Between now and 2020 there is a huge amount of governing to be done, votes have to be won in the Commons and the Lords, the referendum and its aftermath have to be managed, the economy has to go on being nursed through what remains a challenging period, and a new leader has to be elected.
None of this will be easy or straightforward. All the while the Party has to be mindful of its share of the vote at the 2010 and 2015 elections and think about new ways it can refresh itself and broaden its appeal. Ruth Davidson’s approach may well hold some clues.
It may be difficult for Labour to win the next General Election. Time will tell. But it would not be so hard for the Party to lose the next General Election.
This time around it would not be so easy to find coalition partners and running a minority government would not be so easy – as those who lived through the governments of John Major and Jim Calllaghan will remember.
In one form or another it has been this sense of insouciance that has been the spectre hanging over this period of Conservative government. It is unnecessary and unattractive. Worse than that, it damages the government’s ability to pass its business in Parliament and win broader support for its important work across the country.
Any sense that the 2020 general election is a forgone conclusion based on the relative performance of the parties last Thursday would be a serious mistake.
What this week’s elections do permit is a refreshed sense of determination to win people over, to engage across the community and in every region of the country with a confident sense of purpose and energy.
Sitting back and waiting for a general election victory to fall into our laps is not the Conservative way forward, never has been, and it will not be the approach of anyone who wants to be a successful candidate in the forthcoming leadership election.