Warning for the Tories: Political roller coasters go down as well as up…

Julian Glover is not given to glib or easy judgements on how the two main UK parties are faring. But his newspaper’s poll is showing the same trend as other recent polls: that there appears to be a slow (and I would guess almost reluctant) rally to Gordon Brown. More worrying from a Tory perspective is that that rock solid 40%+ is looking decidedly soft.

Although Cameron was his usual aggressive self in the Commons today, it was the Labour benches that had to be told to shut up by the Speaker John Bercow. The mood amongst Labour MPs is lifting, with some of them even contemplating coming out with their own slight majority: although May is still a very long way off.Danny Finklestein, one of the most intelligent Tory observers and a former special advisor to William Hague, reckons that whatever the polls say, Ashcroft’s money and clever segmentation of the English shire constituencies the Tories lost to the Blairite revolution will be enough to get them over the line. Increasingly that line is looking like a majority of any description will do.

Gone are the rye speculations about an 80/90 seat majority. Although to be fair to the Tory leadership, I don’t think any of them thought this would be anything other than a long drawn out war of attrition. The Tory blogosphere after about 18 months of euphoric (and often vitriolic) pursuit of Gordon Brown seems to have almost blown itself out.

Michael Portillo has a plausible answer. No one quite believes that change is as necessary as those in the church of the Tory faithful have been telling us for the last few years:

After some hesitation, the government is hanging together, and Britain is in crisis rather than chaos. The demand for change is strong but not overwhelming. It doesn’t resemble 1979, when, despite widespread fear of Margaret Thatcher’s radicalism, desperate times dictated exceptional solutions. It isn’t like 1997, when an almost revolutionary fervour gripped Britain. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”, wrote William Wordsworth of the storming of the Bastille, and Tony Blair picked up the metaphor as light burst upon his first day in office.

Voters today have little expectation of a bright new morning. Their unhappiness with Gordon Brown, though substantial, does not overpower their worries about the Tories, which today centre on their competence rather than their radicalism. For an electorate that weakly wills change, a hung parliament is a rational outcome.

Mr Portillo has put his finger on the core problem: competence. George Osborne in particular, still comes over as a probationer teacher who is desperately trying to bone up on the curriculum the night before teaching the class/the nation about his thoughts on macro economics. And as Portillo acutely observes, whatever the arguments and counter economic arguments:

…a recovery requires confidence, and politicians are better qualified to judge sentiment than economists, and are in a position to lead it. It is as reasonable to argue that recovery has been stifled because neither party looks willing to tackle the deficit, as that the alleged recovery would be set back by “precipitate” action to control the debt.

As he possibly correctly suggests, a hung parliament is a nightmare for anyone trying to provide clear leadership. If it is hung, we might expect a second election by whomever it is that wins to try and get permission to govern in their own terms. The Tories’ lack of clarity, however is not doing them any favours:

Since October 2008 the party has shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. At last year’s party conference it seemed to have settled on a position. The shadow chancellor, George Osborne, talked of austerity and delivered something like a green budget.

In January this year he said that in-year plans would need to be altered immediately after the election. But by the end of the month Cameron promised there would be no “swingeing cuts” in the first year. The shadow business secretary, Ken Clarke, added to the confusion last week, commenting that the Conservatives would have to be tougher on public spending than “Margaret Thatcher ever was”.

After 20 economists wrote to The Sunday Times last weekend, urging that a start on reducing public spending be made at once, Osborne was quick to claim that that endorsed the Conservatives’ position. But, alas, Tory policy was by then as clear as mud.

He goes on to talk about the party’s inconsistency, and suggests that the party needed a big internal argument and hammer out a single and robust line on the economy. So speaks the veteran of a Thatcher cabinet.

That’s simply not the Cameron way. He’s urbane, polite and charming to his friends and cruel and ruthless to his enemies. He has little inclination to micro manage his front bench team and gives the distinct impression of being profoundly post ideological in his political outlook. Thus the residual distrust amongst many latter day Thatcherites, like my former colleagues at the Telegraph Simon Heffer and Jeff Randall.

That was fine when times were great. But Brown’s taunts that Cameron is unable to tackle policy issues seem finally to be drawing electoral blood. Cameron still has the same capacity to attack with wit and ferocity, but it’s nearly always related to news stories skilfully garnered for him by Andy Coulson, rather than on grander matters of state. Despite Brown’s poor footwork (and notorious lack of ’emotional intelligence’), he’s getting renewed marks for being consistent.

In the last three years, Brown’s one, very palpable hit was his view that this was no time for a novice. To be frank, looking at the two front benches, Labour looks old and knackered. The Tories, by contrast, look younger and, unburdened by government for thirteen years, have an abundance of energy not available to their older colleagues on the government benches. And they will look even younger after the election when many of the old guard will have been forced to stand down.

Yet now it is the Tory back benchers’ turn to contemplate the possibility of failure, after four years of hope. A shared hatred of Gordon Brown may what binds many in the Tory blogosphere together into a single band. But that may not be enough to win the swing voters of middle England back. The party now needs to give people an excuse to switch from the brooding devil they know, to one they still, after four years, don’t.

Or, as Michael Portillo argues, they may just have to hope that something disastrous turns up to tip Mr Brown unceremoniously out of his eyrie in Number Ten. If that is the plan, then it’s a rather unappealing – not to mention an unpatriotic – one. That’s pretty much what I suggested this time last year, only back then I thought Labour would give up without a fight.

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  • Marcionite

    Andew Marr made a good point when analysing the 2005 general election where Labour were reelected but with a much reduced majority. Marr said that individual voters cannot vote for a bloodied nose or a hung parliament, the result just came out that way.
    Also, the argument that the Tories need an 11% swing to win a meagure majority assumes that swings are uniform across the board. One of the phenomena of the 2005 election was that there were at least 3 patterns of swing within the UK. Also, the 1997-2005 unofficial pack between Labour and LibDem voters to ‘keep the Tory out’ no longer exists.

    The election will be won and lost during the campaign proper and not the phoney war that is occuring now. Manifestos will need to be written and published and hands shown and analysed and scrutinized.

    However, I fail to imagine how Gordon Brown could trump Cameron or even Clegg on a live debate. I fear it could be an analogue of Nixon/Kennedy. Lets hope the radio listenership is as equally as numerous as the televisual one for sake of balance but I doubt it.

    If there is a hung parliament, a second election this year or 2011 is most likely, the British polical system is not geared towards coalitions, especially at national level. Parties would prefer to rule as a minority for a while. Even if there is a second election, it would be hard to imagine the winning party, if there is one, winning a workable majority.

    Could we be witnessing a macro-political cycle repeating the 1974 scenario? Could this lead to 4-5 years of hesitant slow-death governance that could lead to a decisive c-change victory in 2015/2016 by a party led by Someone Yet Unknown akin to a Thatcher-like political earthquake?

    Interesting psephological times lie ahead but I fear we are staring at 5 more years of a moribund time, something we can ill afford.

  • union mack

    the Conservatives have lost their nerve, and have been shown to be intellectually scattered on key policy issues. They may be the largest bloc, but it’s increasingly likely that rather than switch from Labour to Conservatives, middle Englanders will stay at home in ever greater numbers, such is the disenchantment with party politics at the present. A hung Parliament is almost inevitable now, imo

  • If it is – the econoomy stupid – then today’s statement by the IMF backing the Labour Party’s position of pain next year rather than pain this year will only have added to the distinct whiff of opportunism and the growing sense of mild panic emanating from, an until recently over-confident, Tory party.

    Will any of the mad-dog-right-wingers hoping to get into government sheltering behind the moderate persona of Davey break their cover or perhaps the still slowly simmering story at the News of the World will come to the boil conviently before the election.

    Game definitely on.

  • iluvni

    I see the Electoral Commission has released Quarter 4, 2009 donations to the mainland parties. When are NI’s parties going to have their donations opened to scrutiny?

  • Harry J

    see the Electoral Commission has released Quarter 4, 2009 donations to the mainland parties. When are NI’s parties going to have their donations opened to scrutiny?
    Posted by iluvni on Feb 24, 2010 @ 06:46 PM

    ooops, the tories are already trying to change the story – shame posh boy cameron and wee reg will be both out of jobs come june

  • Those DUP votes looking better all the time http://www.thedissenter.co.uk/2009/10/conservative-practicality/

  • Alias

    They could have won a landslide – easily – on the economy and on Europe if they didn’t elect a leader who is fashionably post-ideological and therefore devoid of political purpose. They’ll probably get a small majority but most of it will vanish when the Tories are forced into making unpopular decisions in the national interest (forced by having to clean-up up the massive national debt that is Labour’s legacy), and that majority will vanish because the Tories will have selected fluff candidates who will be duly shocked that its leader actually has to consider the national interest. It’s a shame that he revealed himself as a surrender monkey over Lisbon.

    At a time when the UK has too much national debt, he could have pointed out that the UK as a 14% shareholder in the ECB will have to pay circa 4.5 billion as its share of bailing out Greece even though the UK isn’t even a member of the Eurozone! Of course, Ireland is also a shareholder in the ECB, so this bankrupt country which is at least prepared to engage in wage deflation as a corrective to flawed ECB policies will also have to add to its national debt to bail-out another country which isn’t prepared to take such hard action.

  • Greenflag

    Time for SF and the SDLP and any other NI party with an eye on the main chance to make overtures to Gordon Brown re their prospective Commons support in a hung parliament .

    The English are beginning to recall Thatcher to mind and they don’t want that again -do they ? Labour for now is the lesser of two weevils 😉

    I don’t believe the British people will vote the Tory Party into Government that has as it’s only allies in Europe a shower of Polish and Austrian neo nazis.

    The fluffy inexperienced Eton boyos are not what England needs in todays economic climate . They should go an play cricket and have some cucumber sandwiches to prepare anew for 2016 😉

  • Gone are the rye speculations about an 80/90 seat majority.

    Famously,

    Maidenhead is a town in Berkshire, in which over 17,000 people contrive to live without embarrassment.

    Similarly, Rye is a town in East Sussex, in which 4,000 “mud-heads” exist without being rueful. The word “wry” may have been intended in the above.

    I’m not going to anticipate the outcome of a General Election. My memory extends back too far, and involves too many misjudgments. Else my alter ego would have been a Parliamentarian of considerable distinction. What is more important is that opinion polling is hardly scientific. For example, it would fail any “climate change” test.

    What happens is the polling organisation takes a sample: round about a thousand bods are supposed to represent the collective wit and wisdom of the remaining 45,200,000 potential electors. Obviously a whole lot of manipulation has to take place to make the 1K=42MB. So, it’s down to massaging the numbers.

    Then, there is a curious phenomenon. Once the result of an Election is called, 10-20% more voters claim to have supported the winner than actually did so. Right now, the Great British Public [GBP] have been told for some time who will win: that must affect their expressed “opinion”. When the Election is called, watch for the reality to strike. Equally, watch then for no opinion poll to be too far out of line with the rest.

    Third: the more distant from the last General Election, the less accurate the recollection of the canvassed, and so the more problematic those statistical manipulations:

    What did you vote last time?
    What will you vote next time?

    Fourth: all the quoted political opinion polls are paid for by one or other of the media outlets. Not for nothing was YouGov (before it proved its honesty) known as “What d’you want, Gov?” At least one of the present reporters, a new comer to the UK scene, is delivering responses precisely-tailored to its sponsor’s explicit prejudices. Curious, that, especially since no-one else takes a blind bit of notice.

    Fifth: much of the media, especially the Murdoch-owned lot, wants to be on the winning side, above all else. If the Tory figures go awry (geddit?), watch the Sun become an old friend cooling.

    Last: the GBP traditionally vote with their pockets. That’s why neither side, but especially the Tories, are too keen to say who and what will be cut. There’s a narrative yet to be fully crafted.

  • David Crookes

    If indeed the Tories are living in the hope that ‘something disastrous’ will turn up to tip Mr Brown out of office, they are in a hopeless state. Disastrous things — what Macmillan called ‘events’ — can happen to an opposition as well as to a government. For the last year the Tories have been suffering from a slow disaster of their own: the genuine absence of clear policies. Brown looks at times like an over-earnest school prefect, but Cameron and Osborne come across like two frivolous young men who won Beautiful Baby Contests in the 1970s and never recovered from the experience.

  • Dan Sullivan

    The problem for the Tories has always been that under FPTP votes that Labour loses have to move over to them directly otherwise if they simply move to the parties further down the line, like UKIP, Greens, BNP or various nationalists that the Tories don’t make the seat gains they require. A Labour candidate could drop by whatever the national drop is say 5% from 2005 and still hold their seat, take Wirral South (which is around about the mark of places that they must be gaining in to get a majority) as an example: in 2005 it was

    LAB 16,062 42.39%
    CON 12,505 33.00%
    LIB 8,320 21.96%
    OTH 1,008 2.66%

    LAB Majority 3,557 9.39%

    If Labour lost 5% here consistent with the national vote from 35.3% last time that would be still 37.39%, and if the loss moves as much to the LibDems and Others as it does to the Tories then the Tories still don’t take the seat. That is the heart of their problem.

    The key aspect of the debates for Cameron (and why I think they are a mistake for him) is that many people may conclude from them rightly or wrongly that he’s too clever/upperclass/too like Blair/doesn’t share their values by half and that they instead vote for the LibDems or anyone else which wouldn’t result in many if any gains for them but ends up preventing the Labour losses of the size that the Tories desperately need.