By Paul Goodman
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Returned from a fortnight on the Isle of Wight. The isle is full of noises…
Here is the situation as I see it as the conference season comes into view.
- Miliband's vote is vulnerable… The most striking opinion poll finding about the three main parties since 2010 is the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote. Some traditional LibDem voters are reflexively anti-Tory. At the last election, Labour won 29% of the vote. Its last five daily YouGov totals have been: 43%, 43%, 42%, 42% and 44%. The only reasonable way of reading these totals is that, with the LibDems marooned at 10% or lower, Ed Miliband is scooping up a big chunk of those former anti-Tory LibDem voters. On paper, these could account for Labour's entire poll gain since 2010. In practice, this is unlikely to be the case: none the less, Mr Miliband has not yet gained a poll rating near anywhere near Blair's opposition maximum (53%) or Kinnock's (56%). Labour is thus attracting fewer switchers from the Conservatives than his predecessors. As Lord Ashcroft noted recently from his Corby polling, Mr Miliband's own poll standing is unimpressive, and the polling consensus suggests that voters prefer David Cameron as Prime Minister and don't trust the Miliband/Ed Balls team on the economy. All in all, Labour's lead remains highly vulnerable.
- …But, given the collapse of the boundary review and the way the electoral system works, David Cameron can't open up a ten per cent lead – which some analysts claim he must achieve in 2015 to win an overall majority. The Conservatives' lowest poll rating under Margaret Thatcher that I can find was 27%. For John Major the bottom rating in Government was 24%. The party's last five YouGov daily totals come in at 32%, 34%, 34%, 33% and 34%. These figures probably reflect a marginal post-Olympics mini-rally, and should thus be adjusted down slightly. None the less, the party's mid-term poll position under Mr Cameron is no worse than under it was under Mrs Thatcher or Mr Major (as they then were), and given Labour's weakness the position is recoverable. I would not be at all suprised to see the Tories lead Labour by a 2015 polling day. I could even imagine Mr Cameron raising the party's vote share (given the parlous condition of the LibDems) – an achievement beyond both Thatcher and Major. What I cannot see is him obtaining a ten point election lead over Labour - I am assuming that Mr Miliband wins at least 33% of the vote – barring a bolt from the unknown, such as a major terror attack. Even a 7-point lead – Peter Kellner's figure – looks highly improbable.
- In the absence of any compelling plan to open up a 10 point lead over Labour, party conference will be far more tense than last year's. Mr Cameron's position is at risk – and would be more so were there a convincing challenger in the Commons. Mr Cameron is unlikely to be rescued either by Scotland voting for independence (great for the Conservatives' English interest; disastrous for our political settlement) or by UKIP going away, whatever decision he makes about an EU referendum package. The Liberal Democrats will continue to resist a big economic renewal package – tax cuts funded by a new spending squeeze; big airport, nuclear plant and housing projects, and a massive deregulation programme – assuming that the Treasury is up for pressing one. Nor could Mr Cameron force such a plan through the Commons at the head of a minority Government. The reshuffle will have no impact and Tory MPs will become even more restive. Since there is no clear successor to Mr Cameron in the Commons, they will probably conclude that any change would only make matters worse, especially if they sit for marginal seats and fear an early election. But there are many Conservative MPs in safer seats who don't care for their leader, and the old culture of instinctive loyalty is long gone. He is at risk.
For what it's worth, I believe that any leadership change would make matters worse, and that – while on the subject – Boris Johnson would be mistaken to return to the Commons before 2015.
Finally: if Mr Cameron wants a stable second term as Prime Minister, he has only one means of achieving it – to re-form the Coalition after 2015. Is that now his aim?