Cameron's election-day guessing game

New book reveals that Cameron and Osborne were among those predicting a hung parliament.

"The question David Cameron was asking through election night was not 'Will we get enough seats to win?' but 'Will we get to 300?',", the Conservative Party pollster Andrew Cooper of Populus, a key insider at Tory campaign HQ, told a general election "inquest" panel debate in Westminster last night.

Cooper was speaking at the launch of The British General Election of 2010, the latest indispensable edition in the unparalleled series of election books, now written by Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh. (The books were long nicknamed the "Nuffield" series after the Oxford psephological legend David Butler, of Nuffield College, an author on every study from 1945 to 2005, who attended last night's launch of the first book he was not involved in writing).

Cooper's account of Cameron's lack of electoral self-confidence is captured in a telling election-day vignette of the Cameron kitchen cabinet from Cowley and Kavanagh's book:

On the morning of polling day Cameron's team sat round Steve Hilton's kitchen table in Oxfordshire and made their predictions; most were for the Conservatives being the largest party but without a majority.

The authoritatively sourced book, based on 360 insider interviews, does not take a punt on who predicted what.

What seems clear is that both David Cameron and George Osborne were among those predicting a hung parliament. Informed speculation in Westminster suggests that their predictions were pretty similar, but that Osborne may have been marginally closer to the final tally. (I have heard, though cannot verify, that Cameron predicted 311 Tory seats and Osborne 308, almost exactly hitting the 306 seats the party won on the night; the Tories finally ended on 307 after the delayed Thirsk and Maldon contest later in May.)

Perhaps, almost six months on, we might now be at a distance safe enough for the political lobby to find out how the rest of the kitchen cabinet fared in the election-day guessing game. Cameron and Osborne could gain credit for their uncannily accurate reading of the public mood and the electoral map, even in the heat of battle. The downside is the lack of electoral self-confidence at the very top of the party in their own strategy to win, somewhat contrasting with the more bullish mood of campaign staffers and activists.

Cowley and Kavanagh write that the highly accurate BBC/ITN/Sky exit poll (Con 307, Lab 255, Lib 59) "was met with disbelief by most commentators and those in the campaign HQs". That was certainly true of the Tory campaign HQ troops, but somewhat less so at the very apex of the high command, though all parties had expected the Lib Dems to gain rather than lose seats.

For Cooper, the most telling poll finding of the campaign was that 75 per cent of voters believed it was time for a change from Labour, but only 34 per cent believed it was time for a change from Labour and to the Conservatives, a point also made in the book.

He said last night that the strategic weakness of the Tory campaign was always to respond with an "unremittingly negative" attack on Gordon Brown, which failed to take on board how far the decisive electoral question remained voters' doubts about the Conservatives. This meant that they failed to secure enough support – most notably in Scotland, in London (particularly among non-white voters), and among public-sector workers and the less well-off, where those who agreed it was time for a change remained repelled by the risk of the "same old Tories".

As the Tory leadership realised this, they began to make "much more detailed preparations for a hung parliament than anybody realised", Cooper said. That the lack of depth of its "brand decontamination" effort over the five-year parliament was the party's critical weakness was well understood by the leadership in the second half of the parliament.

Indeed, this failing kept David Cameron awake at nights – a detail that captures why the Conservatives are so exercised (as are the Lib Dems) about the Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis showing that their Budget and Spending Review are regressive. As Cowley and Kavanagh report:

Populus developed mood boards to study the Conservative and Labour images and reported each quarter. The most worrying finding for the Conservatives was the perception that they would, in a crunch, stick up for rich and privileged people. Cameron privately confessed late in 2008 that the persistence of this last image kept him awake at night. It was a factor in his shadow cabinet reshuffle in 2009. That the perception declined only slightly by the time the election was called reflected the limits of Cameron's brand decontamination strategy.

This was never resolved, partly as no choice was ever made between competing strategies and instincts of George Osborne, Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson. Ultimately, somewhat by default, Cameron leaned closest to the Coulson focus on tough daily newslines, concentrating on the failure to articulate the Tory alternative. So the book reports Cameron texting the inner circle, after an inconclusive session around the time of the spring conference at the end of February, that the "navel-gazing" about Tory messaging was unhelpful. The answer was to focus more relentlessly on "change" and Gordon Brown's record.

Cameron's lack of electoral confidence is also relevant to the prevailing assumption that a minority Tory administration would have won a second election – this autumn or next spring. The authors admit that nobody knows what would have happened, but they challenge this orthodoxy (which the Lib Dem leadership often relies on to argue that a supply-and-confidence arrangement would have been much worse than a coalition);

There was no guarantee of winning another quickly held election. In both 1910 and 1974, the last two [occasions] to see two elections in one year, the results barely shifted at the second contest. Moreover, as John Curtice shows [Nuffield appendix], the political geography of the UK has changed in recent years, producing fewer marginal seats and so making a victorious second election even less likely.

Cameron's caution made a coalition sensible. In a parallel political universe where he had made another choice, his short premiership could have ended this week.

Sunder Katwala is the general secretary of the Fabian Society. He blogs at Next Left.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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