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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.