The Tories could still lose

They haven't yet "sealed the deal" with the electorate

The Times has more bad news for the Prime Minister. Its front-page headline proclaims: "Give us any leader but Brown, say voters".

Nine months at most from a general election, a Populus poll for the Times suggests that 48 per cent of voters believe that "literally anyone" from Labour's ranks could do better, without naming alternatives. Only a third say that Mr Brown is the best leader available to Labour.

"Without naming alternatives" is the key point, however. Other polls suggest that when alternatives are named (be they Miliband, Johnson, Harman, or whoever), Labour's poll ratings remain far below those of the Conservatives. (Then again, Polly Toynbee and others are right to remind us of the inevitable "honeymoon period" that all new leaders benefit from, including Gordon Brown in the summer of 2007.)

With or without Brown, things look bad for Labour. But, the other bit from the Times piece that sticks out is the graphic on the front page, which shows the opposition party's support ahead of various landmark general elections: in September 1978 (Thatcher's Tories at 48 per cent), in September 1996 (Blair's New Labour at 50 per cent) and, today, in September 2009 (Cameron's Conservatives at 41 per cent). As the accompanying text helpfully adds:

The Tories are, however, doing less well than Labour in opposition in 1996 (on 50 per cent) or the Tories in 1978 (48 per cent).

So isn't there still a chance of a hung parliament (as I have long suspected there might be)? The public, according to Populus, disagrees:

The number thinking that there will be a hung parliament has fallen by 5 points to 20 per cent. Some 17 per cent (up 2 points) think that Labour will win an overall majority.

But if, as in previous years, and as the Times concedes, the opposition party loses support in the final months before the general election, where will that leave Cameron's Conservatives next May? I'm no psephologist, but isn't a Tory opposition that's polling in the mid-to-late 30s in the run-up to an election contested under a first-past-the-post system with a bias towards Labour heading for a hung parliament?

As Leo McKinstry argued so persuasively and forcefully in the New Statesman back in May:

The national opinion polls are, of course, bleak for the government, but then they also were at the time of the European elections in 2004, a year before Blair's third triumph. The average Tory lead of 10-12 per cent in recent months might look healthy, but, in truth, if replicated at a general election, it would be barely enough to win. After three successive landslide defeats, the task facing the Conservatives at the next election is daunting.

Taking account of boundary changes, they have to gain at least 112 seats to form an overall majority in the Commons. That would require a 7.1 swing, the equivalent of an 11 per cent lead over Labour in the national British vote, far beyond the scale of anything achieved by a previous Tory opposition.

It is a remarkable historical fact that since the end of the Victorian age, the Conservatives have only once turned out a government which possessed a working majority in parliament. That occurred in 1970, when Ted Heath -- defying conventional wisdom and the polls -- defeated Harold Wilson's government, though even then the swing was 4.7 per cent, significantly lower than that needed by Cameron.

Every other Tory victory since 1900 has been against a dying coalition or Labour government which had lost its majority, or never held one.

So, despite today's Populus poll in the Times, the verdict of a piece I co-wrote with my colleague James Macintyre in June still stands:

In the mid-1990s, the late Roy Jenkins compared Tony Blair's mission in leading New Labour to victory to that of an elderly and frail butler carrying a priceless vase from one side of a room to another. Today, Labour is down but not out. And it should be repeated: the Tories have yet to seal the deal with the British electorate. David Cameron must hope that his fragile party doesn't slip and stumble before election day.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.