In 1983, Margaret Thatcher was re-elected with a landslide majority of 144 seats – the most convincing Conservative victory in Britain’s post-war history. What tends to be forgotten, however, is that the Conservative vote actually went down compared to the previous election – both in absolute and percentage terms.
This is the ultimate proof of what Dan Hodges in the Daily Telegraph calls the “Iron Rule” of British politics:
“No incumbent government [can] ever match or exceed the share of the popular vote it secured at the past election. It [is] impossible.”
In fact, if you go back far enough, you will find some exceptions, but not in the last 40 years.
Until recently, it was generally assumed that the rule would hold true in the coming election too – thereby placing a cap on Tory ambitions:
“…given the Conservative Party secured 37 per cent of the British vote share in 2010, 36 per cent was the party’s ceiling. They were destined to be stuck at or below that level. They could not, under any circumstances, exceed it.”
The rise of the ‘minor’ parties has reinforced this expectation. Yet, as Hodges points out, the early indications are that things may turn out differently:
“So far, since the formal start of the election campaign, we have had seven opinion polls. Four of them have shown the Tories ahead, two have been ties, and one has had a Labour lead. Five of the seven have had the Tories in the range 35 per cent to 36 per cent. The New Statesman’s May 2015 five day poll average has them on 35 per cent.”
It should be said that this was the situation as of Thursday last week. Subsequent polls (taken in the wake of the leaders’ debate) had support for the big two parties at a slightly lower level. The picture won’t be clear until later this week, once we have polling conducted after the Easter weekend.
Nevertheless, looking at the last few weeks of polling, it’s possible to discern an encouraging trend:
“…polls go up and polls go down. Actually, they undulate, like waves. But there is a clear pattern. The Tory crests are getting progressively higher. And on the current trends, they will top 37 per cent.”
There will be those who say that Dan Hodges is a less than dispassionate observer in these matters. Unlike most pundits, he’s been willing to stick his neck out and predict the failure Ed Miliband’s ‘35 per cent strategy’ – and, therefore, a Conservative victory.
Whatever skin he might have in this game, Hodges’ basic argument – that David Cameron is in with a chance of beating the Iron Rule – is not unreasonable. The polling evidence we have so far shows that this prize is within reach, though far from guaranteed.
However, there is a possibility that Hodges doesn’t allow for – which is that Cameron will match his 2010 vote share, but still lose power. While the Conservatives could squeeze the UKIP vote, Labour could do some squeezing of its own – from the redder parts of UKIP, the SNP and the Greens.
With the Conservatives finishing on 37 per cent and Labour a point or two behind, an extraordinary scenario presents itself: Cameron leads his party to first place on votes and seats – and a slightly higher vote share than in 2010, but the SNP put Ed Miliband into Downing Street.
In such circumstances, would it be reasonable to remove Cameron as party leader? I don’t ask the question because I’m a die-hard Cameroon. Indeed, as a pessimistic supporter of the Good Right agenda, I don’t see much hope for genuine renewal under the current leadership.
Nevertheless, it would be unjust to dump a leader who managed to maintain or increase the Conservative vote after five years of austerity and the rise of UKIP.
Being turfed out of government is no small thing, of course – but is David Cameron going to be the first Conservative leader to be sacked for a collapse in Lib Dem support?