Alex Morton was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
Political tides can change quickly
In the aftermath of the first Conservative outright victory in two decades, David Cameron and George Osborne came to believe Cameron could single handedly rewrite the Tory script. This led to over-confidence in the EU referendum on various issues – that no senior Conservatives would support Leave, that Cameron could win over enough Tory voters by focusing on economic issues, the centre-right media would accept any deal as a good one, and so on.
I cannot recall a time when I disagreed strongly with the overwhelming majority of ConservativeHome readers. But I worry that over 90 per cent of ConserativeHome’s party member survey respondents believe an election is in the bag for 2020, and that 75 per cent oppose an early general election. After all, while I generally trust the wisdom of crowds, just six per cent of this site’s readers (including myself) thought it likely we would win more than 330 seats in 2015 (the final tally was 331), as the infographic at the top of this column reminds us. The current view that we will definitely triumph in three years’ time is in danger of leading us onto dangerous ground, and we need to take measures to strengthen our position.
May will inevitably make enemies by making the big choices that she must grapple with
I’ve argued before the challenges facing May are so many she would benefit from an early election to strengthen her hand. While the economy grew at a fairly steady 2.1 per cent last year, this was down to steady household consumption growth – exports and investment did not grow. The saving ratio remains fairly low and is falling, private debt is growing much faster than the economy, heading back up to 140 per cent of GDP, barely lower than the 150 per cent of GDP peak in 2008 (while public debt has exploded). It has been nine years since the end of the last recession – and we are due a downturn soon (which of course, most of the media would portray as a result of Brexit). This is on top of the continued challenge of the deficit, and worsening public sector difficulties from social care to the NHS and jails.
The Prime Minister was unfairly characterised as Theresa Maybe by the Economist at the start of the year. Yet there is an element of truth: we do not quite know where she will land on many big decisions. It is hard to argue that her goal of rewiring the economy or British society has been realised. Most big tests lie ahead. Will her sectoral deals leave out some industries (who will of course cry foul)? Will she intervene to push houses through via local plans in Conservative areas? Will she fundamentally reform the balance of taxes away from labour toward capital or wealth, will she intervene to support savers if inflation erodes real interest rates yet further? The list could continue – even before Brexit rears its head. May must make enemies through her choices or else alienate everyone by trying to avoid them – and this combined with some bad luck could easily knock the Tories into a difficult place.
Labour’s weakness is an existential threat to the Tories due to proportional representation
It was amazing how quickly people forgot after May 2015 how narrow the Conservative victory was. Had around 15,000 voters around the country in the most marginal seats switched from Tory to Labour, the Conservatives would have been unable to form a stable government. In such circumstances, and following two elections without a strong government (the main advantage of First-Past-the-Post) the issue of electoral reform to a proportional system could have gained prominence, with all parties but the Tories gaining from such a switch.
Labour are in serious trouble. Too many commentators and some politicians think this weakness is a boost to the Tories. In fact, it is an existential threat to the Conservatives. If the Labour party thinks it cannot form a majority government again, it will back proportional representation. Labour’s weakness means that even if the economy stalls or Brexit becomes difficult, they are unlikely to win an election outright. But if the Tories lost as few as thirty seats to the Labour party and Liberal Democrats at or before a general election in 2020, a ramshackle rainbow coalition that seeks to unpick our electoral system is entirely possible.
A Constitutional Referendum Lock via Act of Parliament with Sovereign Safeguard
To counter this, if May does not want a federal UK with greater English self-governance (which given her speech last week to Scottish Conservatives seems unlikely), and does not want an election now, a constitutional referendum lock should be put in place in the next Queen’s Speech. This should set out for major constitutional changes such as changes in the balance of power between parts of the UK, changes to the electoral system, or fundamental reform of one or both of the Houses of Parliament, a referendum should be held. It should not attempt to lock in Brexit – or any other decision that can be overturned by parliament, since this is about stopping a permanent change to the rules of the democratic game rather than tying Government’s hands on important issues.
It should not be necessary to put such a Bill in place – but who can trust the Left, given their increasing disdain for ordinary people and disregard toward their views. New Labour’s asymmetric devolution and Supreme Court are just two examples of the modern Left’s poorly thought through and partisan constitutional tinkering. It is easy to imagine a rag-tag left wing coalition dismantling our constitution on the basis of a temporary advantage in the Commons.
Of course, since parliament cannot bind itself, a safeguard would be necessary. This could and should come via the sovereign – who can withhold Royal Assent. Such a Referendum Act would stipulate that the sovereign would protect the constitution by not consenting to future Bills that sought major constitutional change without a referendum. This is not politicising the monarch, it is merely making her the ultimate guardian of the democratic element of our constitution. The monarch should not have a view on the voting system – but she should protect the right of the people against the rules being rewritten without their consent.
Such an Act would ensure the current triumphalist mood does not lead us into complacency. Without it, there is a real danger that if before the next election May gets into difficulties, then the Tories only need to lose a historically low number of seats to ensure we never govern again.