Cameron tells the Tories: we must "exude a confidence that we can win"

PM tells 1922 Committee reception that "boundaries or no boundaries", the Tories can win.

David Cameron was the surprise guest at tonight's 1922 Committee/ConservativeHome reception and he gave what sounded like a compressed version of his speech for Wednesday. Introduced by ConHome proprietor Lord Ashcroft, who he praised as a "great philanthropist", and by 1922 chairman Graham Brady (recently profiled by my colleague Caroline Crampton), Cameron declared that the Tories must "exude a confidence that we can win the next election", adding that he "absolutely believed" that they could. Drawing unlikely inspiration from Roy "Chubby" Brown, he recalled that the comedian had once joked that someone had told him that there was a rumour going round that he was "exceptional in bed". "Yes, I know," Brown replied, "I started it". In this spirit, Cameron suggested, the Tories should talk up their chances at the next election. An "outright Conservative majority" was "your ambition and my ambition".

He noted that between 1983 and 1987, the party averaged just 24% in the opinion polls, but that Margaret Thatcher went on to win a majority of 102 seats. While he would settle for less than that, he believed that "boundaries or no boundaries", the Tories could win. At the last election, the party had to target 160 seats, this time round it would need to target just 40. Attempting to define the terms on which the election will be fought, Cameron said voters would ask "which party has the best leaders, the best plan to deal with the debt and our economy, and the best plans to reform welfare, pensions and our schools".

Cameron's comments were designed to reassure those activists unsettled by his earlier suggestion that the coalition was superior to single-party government. In May, he was criticised for speaking merely of a future "Conservative-led government", an error he has been careful not to repeat.

Finally, I was amused by Cameron's quip that Ashcroft might want to consider purchasing "one or two newspapers" to aid the Tories' cause. Judging by Ashcroft's recent interventions (he criticised a recent anti-Labour Tory poster as "daft" and "juvenile"), there's no guarantee that the PM would win a better hearing.

David Cameron addresses the 1922 Committee/ConservativeHome reception at The Cube in Birmingham.

David Cameron listens to Foreign Secretary William Hague deliver his speech at the Conservative Party conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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