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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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.

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