Cameron’s limp opposition to AV is no surprise

Why a No vote will be a disaster for the PM.

There's considerable confusion among Tories at the moment around the Alternative Vote (AV), and it's not simply due to the party's lacklustre campaigning effort against electoral change, but because some sincerely think Cameron wants the No vote to win. He doesn't. Indeed, for the PM, nothing could be worse, as it will finally bring him and his supporters inside the party up against the reality that they lost the 2010 general election.

The next election, which a No victory will bring substantially closer, is a grim prospect for the Cameroons. Not least because the Tories won't have Gordon Brown around to do Labour's election-losing work for work for them. Every inaction and mis-step by the supposed Tory "No" effort is still further proof of Cameron's desire to see "Yes" win.

Why will the "No" vote be so disastrous for Cameron? Because it will tear out the heart of the Liberal Democrats. For Labour, watching socialism die over decades was one thing, but for the Lib Dems, the defeat of their holy mission, electoral change, on one brutal night cannot happen without it costing Nick Clegg his job – his party will demand a Lenten sacrifice.

Furthermore, it can't happen without the Lib Dems realising that the next election will be fought on first-past-the-post, with their party stapled to Cameron and George Osborne's record. What worth a coupon election when you're tied to a brand as contaminated as that? It won't be considered, and Clegg's successor will seek a way out of the coalition at the first available moment.

It's the lesson every other coalition overseas teaches us: the smaller party prudently looks for its way out. The next election will happen well before 2015.

For all that, the main "No" campaign has been utterly unengaging. Are the polls that show an AV "Yes" lead convincing? More so, for example, than the 2:1 lead "No" had to Common Market membership at the start of the country's previous national referendum, in 1975?

Some Tories muttered that it wasn't a good sign when Matthew Elliott left the Taxpayers' Alliance to head what's currently the largest "No" campaign grouping. The scepticism was rooted in the TA's tendency too often to produce gimmicky press releases rather than hard research, and the fear that their opposition-era unwillingness to criticise Osborne's distinctly un-TAish Treasury team too loudly bore an inverse relationship to the expectations TA staffers harboured of post-election SPADships. In other words, for many on the right, this "No" campaign has always had a tame air to it.

The hard-right sneering at Elliott is doubtless all very unfair when not just downright bitter, but there's still something wrong with the No campaign beyond merely its present unimpressive tactics. It ought to have been Labour-led. Defeating AV is something Labour should have a vested interest in, and most Labour MPs see that. Yet the No campaign is Tory-dominated. Whether Ed Miliband's eccentric preference for AV has held back ambitious Labour flacks from getting involved, or it's been something to do with the culture of No2AV itself, is irrelevant. With Cameron clearly equivocal about stopping AV, as much Labour support as possible should have been sought. Margaret Beckett on a letterhead just doesn't cut it.

At the moment there aren't any "official", Electoral Commission-designated "Yes" and "No" campaigns, just one main, prominent organisation on each side. Should the AV referendum end up being delayed by the Lords, it wouldn't surprise me if a rather more vigorous "No" campaign emerged. However, that's just speculation; what's not is that David Cameron has been even more limp than normal in defence of his alleged beliefs.

A cynic might say that, given his electoral track record, that the best thing Cameron could do to secure a "Yes" vote would be to put himself at the head of the "No" campaign. But that would take courage, and he has never shown any of that. This Tory leader will offer Majoresque delay, evasion and short-term expedients, but whether that will get him the "Yes" to AV vote he so desperately needs is very uncertain indeed.

The bill for losing the 2010 election comes ever closer to being paid by the man who lost it.

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These are the two options for Brexit – which will Theresa May choose?

It doesn't really matter if the Tories are unified around a position that doesn't work. 

Has Theresa May taken control of the Brexit talks or lost it? On the plus side you have the poaching of Olly Robbins, from his post as chief mandarin at the Brexit department to Downing Street. He will retain his role as the UK's top civil servant in the Brexit negotiations, increasing May's involvement in the talks. Jim Pickard and Henry Mance have a good account of the consequences across Whitehall in the FT.

On the minus side, you have, well, everything else really. "Boris is Boris," was the PM's lukewarm response to his big intervention in the Brexit talks, an acknowledgement that she is too weak to move him. In the Times, Francis Elliott and Sam Coates report on May's plan to try to bind Johnson into her Brexit approach a meeting of the cabinet on Thursday, before her big speech in Florence at the end of the week.

May's predecessor-but-three, William Hague, has used his Telegraph column to warn her that she must unite the Conservatives on Europe or lose the next election to Labour. (He would know, to be fair.) "May must unite Tories on Brexit or lose election, warns Hague" is their splash.

The big divide, James Forsyth explains in the Spectator, is between those favouring a Canada-style loose arrangement with high levels of freedom but a low standard of participation in the single market, and those backing a Norway-esque close arrangement with a low level of freedom and a high level of participation in the single market. Which will May pick?

As one senior Conservative observed yesterday, political reality means that May will likely tilt towards the cabinet's Canada tendency, as Tory Remainers are reluctant to be "suicide bombers" against their own government. The PM has a lot less to lose by moving away from Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd and Damian Green than she does from Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Priti Patel.

There's a small problem here, though: which is that the United Kingdom can't negotiate a Canada-style deal in the time set out by Article 50, and will struggle to put one together even with a period of transition. There isn't really an off-the-shelf model here, as far and away the biggest part of the British economy is services and most big trade deals have done comparatively little for services.

That only compounds May's difficulties. The first problem is that unifying her party around a common position on Europe is easier said than done (just ask, say, anyone who has led the Conservatives since 1970). The second is, as her clash with Boris Johnson shows, she can't unify anything as she doesn't have the power any more. The third and the most important is that it doesn't really matter if the Conservative Party is unified around a Brexit position that doesn't work. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.