By Tim Montgomerie
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I read columnists like Fraser Nelson and Iain Martin for analysis of what the Conservative Party should be doing. Other columnists are more interesting for accurately describing and interpreting what the Conservative Party is doing. Four columnists provide, in my view, the closest understanding of what's happening inside the mind of the Tory leadership. Our own Bruce Anderson. The Times' Daniel Finkelstein. The Spectator's James Forsyth. And, finally, Matthew d'Ancona of The Sunday Telegraph and Evening Standard. In yesterday's Standard Matt reflected on what he saw as the real meaning of Cameron's new position on the EU veto:
"Cameron's conduct at Monday's summit is inexplicable without reference to the next general election. Talk to senior Tory figures at the apex of the Coalition and you will hear the following: that they expect to win the next general election, but not by a huge margin. The best possible outcome they will hazard is a majority of 60. Much more frequently one hears the strategists who matter talking about a slender victory of 10 to 20 seats. To win at all, the Tories have to capture Labour seats – still an immensely difficult task."
I can't help but think Matt is right in his analysis of the Downing Street mood. Here are the ten reasons why Number 10 thinks a continuing coalition remains very likely, even desirable after the next election…
- The Tory brand remains fundamentally weak. At the last four elections we've won 30.7%, 31.7%, 32.4% and 36.1% of the vote. What is going to happen that will catapult the party to the 42% to 44% that is necessary for a decisive Tory majority? It's far from clear that there's any game changer in the pipeline that will address the weaknesses summarised here.
- Worse, Tory strategists have drawn the wrong lessons from failure in 2010. Rather than blaming the decision to agree to debates, the confusing Big Society message, the worries about Osborne as Chancellor, the failure to talk about issues like immigration (full list here) there is a belief in the Cameron circle that the campaign was about as they good as it could have been. This wrong analysis leads you to a more pessimistic view of the potential Conservative vote.
- Unlike the 1980s, Labour is THE opposition party. Labour may have only won 29% of the vote at the last election but they start their time in opposition with nearly 100 more MPs than Hague. More significantly they received a windfall gain of 5% to 8% the moment the Liberal Democrats joined with the Conservatives. Many Left wing supporters of the Lib Dem party defected – probably permanently – into the red column when Nick Clegg put a Tory into Number 10. Labour therefore go into the next campaign with more like 34% to 37% of the vote already pretty committed. Where Margaret Thatcher had the great benefit of a divided opposition, Cameron has the great disadvantage of a united Left.
- The electoral system continues to advantage Labour. Chief Tory strategist George Osborne hoped that the boundary review may gain up to 21 new MPs for the Conservatives (on existing vote shares). The gain may turn out be considerably smaller. Unequal seat size was only ever one of the pro-Labour features in the electoral system. Labour can still win a parliamentary majority with a much lower vote share than is true for the Conservatives.
- Ed Miliband may not survive as Labour leader. Today's opinion polls look good for the Tories but even they point to a hung parliament. Labour's opinion poll rating might be flattered by some mid-term protest factor but they also might be depressed by Ed Miliband's poor leadership (his ratings are appalling) and Labour's incoherent economic policy. Where might Labour be in the polls with a credible leader like Alistair Darling, advancing a grown up economic policy?
- For every upside policy/ event that might increase Conservative popularity – like the benefits cap – there is a downside that is potentially as potent – like the NHS. As Tom Bradby blogged yesterday: "If the NHS reforms blow up in [the Conservative Party's] face, it can probably kiss goodbye to the chances of winning a majority at the next election." NHS failure is the big potato that might 'retoxify' the Tory brand. Cameron was desperate to get into government because he believed that detoxification could not be completed in opposition. Many voters would never believe your insistence to be a modern, compassionate conservative party until you were actually in office and behaving accordingly. Unfortunately for Cameron the public spending cuts are reinforcing perceptions in many voters' minds and as today's Guardian notes, "94% of Mr Osborne's departmental spending cuts are still to come". Yep, 94%. The Liberal Democrats are also seizing every opportunity to claim that every half decent thing done by the Government only happened because they restrained the Conservatives. In the words of one Clegg spin doctor: Getting Tories to help jobless is "like getting a vegetarian to go and buy a kebab".
- Reports of the death of the Liberal Democrats are exaggerated. They will very likely lose a good number of seats at the next election but Lord Ashcroft's marginal polling (and Rob Hayward's analysis of local election results) suggests there are big advantages for incumbent Lib Dem MPs that mean they will out-perform national opinion poll ratings. Recently, the Deputy PM has even hit upon a vote-winning strategy. The LDs may easily retain enough seats to hold the balance of power in a hung parliament.
- The Orange Bookers still run the Lib Dems. While it's true that most Lib Dem activists are left-of-centre and may prefer to prop up a Labour government there is no great left-wing big beast ready to lead Clegg's party in such a direction. Cable is probably too old. Tim Farron and Simon Hughes lack weight. And we all know about Chris Huhne's troubles (who, actually, is more Orange than Red anyhow). As long as the party is controlled by the likes of Clegg, Alexander, Laws, Davey and Browne a relationship with Labour remains tricky.
- Cameron does not want to be at the mercy of the Tory Right. As Matthew d'Ancona says in his piece: even if Cameron can win a small majority he would probably prefer a continuing relationship with Clegg than be at the mercy of his very rebellious parliamentary party.
- The Right remain disorganised and leaderless, without an alternative vision. Cameron might be under pressure to strive for a Tory majority if the mainstream of his party was organised and buzzing with ideas as to how to win the next election. It isn't. The 1922 Committee, for example, is not driving plans for the future. It is not performing the role I argued it should. Without this alternative vision of the Conservative future Downing Street's view of the next election is dominant.
I present this as analysis of the Number 10 mood. It is not what I think is desirable or possible. Next week (later than promised) seems like a good time to reboot this site's MajorityConservatism pages.