Unlike some in his party, David Cameron never expected the Tories to receive an Olympic poll bounce. “People are too sensible to confuse a sporting event with their day-to-day lives,” he shrewdly observed before the Games began. But as he left for his holiday in the Mediterranean, the Prime Minister still had cause to reflect that his woes had increased over the preceding two weeks.
During the Olympics fortnight, he endured the loss of his proposed constituency boundary changes – a significant blow to the Tories’ chances of winning a majority in 2015 – saw Boris Johnson celebrated, and suffered the resignation of Louise Mensch, putting Labour within touching distance of its first by-election gain of this parliament. While Boris was cheered by crowds at Hyde Park, Cameron was booed when he watched the boxer Nicola Adams fight at the ExCeL Centre in east London.
Even before Nick Clegg’s veto of the boundary changes, a Tory majority was looking unlikely. No sitting prime minister has increased his party’s share of the vote since 1974 and Cameron is failing to make progress among those groups – black and ethnic minority voters, public-sector workers, Scottish voters – that refused to support him in 2010.
Economic revival remains the precondition for the Prime Minister’s political revival, yet it is increasingly uncertain. Britain is suffering from a crisis of demand, but the Tories’ self-imposed fiscal straitjacket has left them fixated with supply-side reform. There is talk again of making it easier for firms to hire and fire workers, of building new runways at Stansted Airport and of permanently relaxing the Sunday trading laws. Yet the presence of the Liberal Democrats makes it impossible for most or all of these proposals to become government policy.
Unable to deliver the supplyside revolution demanded by Conservative MPs and unwilling to pursue the Keynesian expansionism favoured by Labour, Cameron and George Osborne have nothing resembling a strategy for growth.
For now, the Tories console themselves that Cameron retains a personal 8-point lead over Ed Miliband as “the best prime minister”. In Labour circles, the party’s poll lead is regarded as “soft” and vulnerable to what the welfare minister Chris Grayling calls “EU veto moments”. As a Labour frontbencher told me: “The polls say we’re 10 points ahead but our real lead is 6 at best.”
The Tories are quietly hopeful that they will be the beneficiaries if the next election is fought over austerity. They will attempt to portray Miliband as the defender of a bloated welfare system and an overmighty public sector. The Chancellor’s promise of another £10bn of welfare cuts is a preview of this strategy. Labour is uncertain how to respond.
One Tory told me that private polling showed voters were more inclined to support Osborne’s austerity measures when informed that the coalition had reduced the deficit by a quarter since coming to power. “Let us finish the job” will be the Tories’ message at the next election.
The promise of another five years of austerity is far removed from Cameron’s original talk of “sunlit uplands”. But, for the PM, in danger of being remembered as one of the least electorally successful Conservative prime ministers in modern history, it is the only option left.