By Tim Montgomerie
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A few months ago when I started arguing that the next election might be difficult to win it was an unpopular argument. Many in the party thought that Ed Miliband was easily beatable. Things have moved on since then with dark clouds descending across the party. My view hasn't changed and it's not recent events that are uppermost in my mind but various structural factors. No sitting PM, for example, has increased their vote share since 1974. Labour has been hugely strengthened by the mass defection of left-leaning Lib Dem voters to the red corner. UKIP is biting chunks out of our own core vote. As yesterday's YouGov polling on the Right/Left brands proved, detoxification has failed. With only 20% of the cuts made we are also busy (some would say unavoidably) retoxifying ourselves.
But enough of this pessimism or, depending on your outlook, realism.
Here's the key question: Can Cameron complete mission impossible and overcome these trends?
Today, a few reasons why the next election CAN be won.
First, the economy. We know the economy won't be strong enough for a tax cutting bonanza but some Conservative strategists think (by 2015 if the Coalition lasts) it might be at a Goldilocks moment – strong enough to reassure people that the Chancellor's medicine might be working but not strong enough for voters to think they can afford Labour. Pointing to 1992 and 1997 Tory strategists believe voters are most likely to vote Labour in good times and least likely when their job or livelihood seems at stake.
Second, "EU veto moments". It was Chris Grayling who gave them this name – big moments between now and the election that remind our core supporters in the country and media that, deep beneath the Coalition, a true Conservative agenda exists. George Osborne is most conscious of this need and his recent manoeuvrings on an EU referendum, windfarm subsidies, faster tax cuts and airport capacity suggest he's ready to (once again) renounce über-modernisation.
The boundary review. If the review is passed the Tories might be fifteen to twenty seats closer to a majority. The Tory Whips are not hopeful — expecting the Lib Dems to tie Lords reform to passage of the new constituency boundaries. George Osborne is more optimistic, insisting that Clegg must force Lib Dem MPs to deliver on their side of the AV deal. We shall see.
Fourth, onslaught on the Liberal Democrats in Lib/Con marginals. The collapse in Lib Dem support has left a lot of Tory MPs (who have Labour in strong second placed positions) feeling vulnerable. Many hope the Lib Dem vote will recover a little. What the Conservative Party mustn't do is allow Labour to maximise its squeeze of third-placed Lib Dem candidates and for us to go easy on Lib Dems in Lib/Con battles. Today's vote on Jeremy Hunt (see Paul Goodman's verdict on the Lib Dems' less-than-collegiate behaviour) proves once again that Nick Clegg's party will always put its interests first. Sayeeda Warsi is apparently champing at the bit to go after the Lib Dems. My understanding is that the "no-mercy-to-Lib-Dem-MPs" argument is beginning to gain ascendancy.
Keeping faith with pensioners. Despite the granny tax (more an accident than design) the Tories have gone out of their way to keep pensioners sweet. They are, after all, the biggest and most dutiful voting bloc. The triple lock has been introduced on the basic state pension and despite Iain Duncan Smith's wishes there'll be no retreat by Cameron on universal benefits like the Winter Fuel Allowance.
Attacking Ed Miliband. Ed Miliband might not be as big a drag on Labour fortunes as ConHQ would like to believe but he is still a key Labour weakness. You may have noticed that the Tories have held fire on Ed Miliband. That will change as the election approaches. "We want him in place as Labour leader at the next election," one Tory source told me, "and we have our political crosshairs over him. He is the best gift to the Conservative Party since Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock". The Tories plan to put tough promises to cap immigration and welfare at the heart of the next election campaign. These caps will, it is hoped, drag C2 voters away from "the metropolitan Miliband". "We will paint him as Dukakis," said my source and have been carefully studying the US Republicans' 1988 campaign against the Democrat nominee. Tory strategists are shocked that Labour is sitting complacently on its current lead – ignoring those like Atul Hatwal who argue that its lead is much, much smaller than current opinion polls suggest. The appointment of Jon Cruddas to oversee policy has caused some concern in Tory circles but they will wait to see if the Dagenham MP can convert blue Labour/ blue sky thinking into solid policy.
Re-emergence opportunity. Sometime in this parliament the Tory Party can re-present itself to the electorate. This is a big moment and I plan to write about it at length on Monday.