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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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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