By Tim Montgomerie
Follow Tim on Twitter
After Stephan Shakespeare I was probably one of the first pessimists about Tory chances at the next election. In October 2011 I launched these Conservative Majority pages because of my concerns that the party still had to climb a huge mountain at the next election. I set out the challenge then. The rise of UKIP in 2012 and the collapse of the boundary review have only made the climb to the first Conservative majority since 1992 look even steeper. I can't disagree with the 88% of Tory members who don't expect a Tory majority after polling day.
In a much Tweeted piece for The Sunday Telegraph my colleague Paul Goodman took a step further and declared that "two years out from 2015, one fact is already evident: David Cameron will not win an overall majority." On ConHome yesterday he set out in typically compelling fashion the four structural factors that make it more than likely that Ed Miliband will be the next resident of Number 10 Downing Street.
Although I remain downbeat about Tory prospects I'm not defeatist. Can the next election be won? Can it be won outright? Although unlikely the answer to both questions has to be yes. Events, of course, can come to the PM's rescue but let me offer three key reasons that don't rely on crossing our fingers:
We didn't maximise our vote at the last election: I have always been amazed at the Tory leadership's unwillingness to face up to the botched nature of the 2010 general election and the Tory leadership's persistent insistence that they maximised the Tory vote. The 2010 campaign was poorly run. Our campaign had no clear message because of infighting in and around Cameron. The debates were a terrible mistake. Our manifesto had few retail offers, focusing on the untested Big Society idea. The Lib Dems found a way of offering tax cuts to the low-paid but we did not. A full post-mortem is here.
Thatcher may have maximised her share of the vote in 1979 and Blair maximised his share in 1997 but both also maximised their operations in those years. Cameron did not maximise his operation or pitch in 2010. There are more Tory voters out there if the Conservatives occupy the common ground rather than the centre ground. If we focus on blue collar Britain as well as liberal Britain. If, as Grant Shapps has begun to plan for, we aim to turn yellow marginals blue. If we have professionals like Lynton Crosby running the general election operation and strategic thinkers like Neil O'Brien writing the manifesto. 2010 needn't be our high point.
Labour's lead is mile wide but an inch deep: Andrew Rawnsley mentioned a key fact in his Observer column yesterday. "The headline poll numbers," he wrote, "are often a less reliable indicator of the true position of the parties than how voters respond to the question: who do you most trust with the economy? …The credibility gap has opened up again since the autumn financial statement. Labour is now behind by 11 points according to the latest ICM poll for the Guardian." Atul Hatwal develops this point on LabourUncut this morning, arguing that "unless Labour’s leadership is suggesting that the party can defy political gravity and somehow win while deeply mistrusted on the economy, Labour’s current course seems a lot like Einstein’s reputed definition of insanity."
George Osborne may be unpopular but Ed Balls is more unpopular. David Cameron's ratings may be low by historical standards but Ed Miliband's are even lower. Mr Miliband's ratings have actually been lower than Gordon Brown's for most of his leadership. On immigration, crime and welfare Labour is out of touch with its base vote.
Labour's lead is only 10%. It is getting much less support at this stage of the parliament than David Cameron did and the press hasn't yet turned its guns on Labour (which I still believe it will). Because of the huge leakage of left-leaning Lib Dem voters to Labour and because of Britain's electoral system Ed Miliband does not need to be brilliant to become PM but he isn't close to being a brilliant Labour leader. Lord Ashcroft's polling points the way to how Labour's thin support might be targeted.
Coalition government presents enormous opportunities: Although it's been forty years since a sitting PM has increased his (or her) share of the vote after first being elected it's also true that we haven't had a coalition government for seventy years and coalition government represents a unique opportunity. For the first time since World War II the government will not be up for re-election. To varying degrees all three parties will be able to offer change. The Conservatives will be able to ask for an opportunity to govern on their own and deliver the strong and compassionate government that Britain neeeds and represents the best of conservatism.
I've urged Cameron to prepare intensively for what I've called his butterfly moment. He will be able to promise replacement of the human rights act and a referendum on the EU. He can promise the restoration of the 10p tax band as a flagship of a blue collar conservatism. He can promise English votes for English laws and to end the Barnett formula that subsidises Scotland and use the savings to help poorer urban communities in England's northern cities and in Wales. Contrasting his vision with Labour's welfare model he can fight for a Conservative idea of fairness where work always pays, marriage is supported and exam results are meaningful.
The latest Paddy Power betting confirms that optimism about Tory fortunes is not widely shared but Ed Miliband hasn't yet won the next election and if we want to avoid him representing Britain on the world stage then we have to have hope and believe that victory is still possible. It is.