“I’d better get this right,” says David Cameron in his Christmas chat with my old boss, Fraser Nelson. Does he do so? You can judge for yourself by clicking here. But the Prime Minister does at least say a number of attention-grabbing things. Whether it’s his praise for the book Why Nations Fail, or his slightly risky admission that he’s on “Team Nigella”, this isn’t an interview that will be forgotten like an unwanted pet on Boxing Day.
From a political perspective, though, it’s probably Cameron’s frustrations with the Lib Dems that are most noteworthy. He makes sure to say some nice stuff about the Coalition, but adds that “increasingly, today, I feel very strongly and see very clearly the case for more accountable, more decisive and active government.” He highlights welfare reform, Europe and business taxes as areas where a Conservative-only administration might go further. “I’m happy to tell you that there’s a good list of things I have put in my little black book that I haven’t been able to do which will form the next Tory manifesto.”
It should be said, this isn’t new. In an interview with the Daily Mail in May 2012, Cameron stressed that “there is a growing list of things that I want to do but can’t, which will form the basis of the Conservative manifesto that I will campaign for right up and down the country.”
But it does clarify how Cameron wants to run the next election campaign. Alongside all the usual stuff a party of government says – that they’ve been good for the country and good for the people, etc, etc – the Tories will also be able to claim that they’d be better governing by themselves. Tim Montgomerie, writing for ConHome, called this “Cameron’s butterfly moment”. It makes the release of the next Conservative manifesto less a call for continuity and more a total relaunch of the party and its ambitions.
This strategy, whatever else it is, is practically unavoidable: Cameron will have to campaign for a Tory majority, and that will mean distinguishing his party from the Lib Dems as well as from Labour. But it does throw up some potential difficulties. One of the happier features of the last election campaign, in hindsight, was that it didn’t require Cameron to badmouth coalition government. But if he has to at the next, will the public – and, indeed, the Tory Party – be ready to accept another in the event of a Hung Parliament?
And remember, the Lib Dems will be doing something similar themselves. It’s telling, today, that Tim Farron’s attack on the spending cuts encoded into the Autumn Statement has been joined by the Social Liberal Forum, a group on the left-wing of the Liberal Democrats. From now until election day, the message will be: yellow isn’t blue, blue isn’t yellow. That could have severe ramifications for the current Coalition, let alone for the possibility of any future union.
What if the Tories and the Lib Dems do talk themselves out of another Coalition? That could spell doom for Cameron’s chances of governing again, but, then again, it might not. It’s worth considering what would happen if both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems lost a hatful of seats at the next election, making the on-paper “majority” of a Con-Lib Coalition miserably small. In that case, would Cameron be tempted to choose minority government on the grounds that he couldn’t keep both the Tory Right and the Lib Dem Left happy at the same time, and preserve that “majority”? Would he choose an attempt at Tory Government over an impossible exercise in cross-party management?
As for the answer, the outcome of the next election could mean that we never actually need one. What we know, for now, is that Cameron will be talking up the joys and the chances of the Tory majority. All the rest is speculation.