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Lessons for the left in 2011

Don’t underestimate Cameron and get lucky.

As 2011 begins, it's time for the British left to face some unwelcome facts. The Conservative-led coalition may already be unpopular with a very difficult 12 months ahead of it as the cuts start and the VAT rise takes effect, but although Nick Clegg's Lib Dems are in big trouble, David Cameron is master of all he surveys.

The coalition may collapse this year but, right now, the fact is that Cameron is the most assured politician in British politics. He is also one of the bravest and, worst of all, he's lucky.

Some commentators have, foolishly, I think, argued that Cameron is an overrated lightweight who couldn't even win a majority against a tired Labour government that had a very unpopular leader. Granted, the Tories should have been pushing 40 per cent rather than the 36 per cent they polled in May. But 36 per cent of the vote gave Labour a comfortable majority in 2005.

It is also true that Cameron and his party fought a poor campaign. Had he gone with a combination of the "let sunshine win the day" optimism so prevalent in his early years as leader and a hard-headed critique of Labour's record, the "time for a change" mood might well have swept the country. Instead, they focused on attacking Gordon Brown personally, while Clegg's "new politics" rhetoric, which sounds so hollow and vacuous now, sounded the optimistic notes the electorate wanted to hear.

But whenever I hear people writing Cameron off, I think back to when he was elected leader in 2005, at a time when most Tories I spoke to expected another Labour election win before they would see power again. But he has got them back into power, pursuing policies that even Margaret Thatcher wouldn't have dared force through. Lest we forget, Maggie Thatcher was also a very lucky politician.

Cameron's bravery in getting the Lib Dems to join what is nominally a coalition but is, in practice, a Tory government in exchange for ministerial posts and a few policies that the Tories couldn't have implemented anyway was breathtakingly skilful in its boldness, but also in its sheer pragmatism.

The Lib Dems had no real alternative, and they and Cameron knew it. Not only did partnership allow Cameron to dispense with many of the lesser members of his shadow cabinet, but it also showed his decisiveness, demonstrated to the public that he was prepared to work with former enemies (though he, Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and David Laws agree on most things) and freed him from all but the most bone-headed right-wingers in his party.

The coalition has worked like a dream for Cameron and been a disaster for Clegg and the Lib Dems. People weren't surprised to see a viciously regressive Budget and tripling of tuition fees from the Tories; it was the complicity and hypocrisy of those supposedly "nice" Liberals that they couldn't comprehend. Making the (very) junior partner take the big hits in the press has allowed Cameron to look like a tough and resolute leader.

You have only to look at the opinion polls to see how strongly the public views Cameron's leadership skills. He comfortably outstrips Ed Miliband and Clegg. In Miliband's case, after just three months in the job, it's hardly surprising that he lags behind Cameron in this regard, but 2011 is the year when his personal ratings as a leader must come close to matching Cameron's.

Neither Cameron nor Miliband is in much danger of seeing 2011 become his annus horribilis. But Clegg is – and he knows it. The Lib Dems are set to be trounced in Oldham East and Saddleworth this week, in a by-election they would normally expect to win easily. The most optimistic of opinion polls point to a loss of councils and hundreds of Lib Dem councillors in the May local elections, coupled with a battering in Scotland and Wales. This plus the loss of the AV referendum could finish Clegg off. No wonder Cameron is considering making Clegg Britain's next EU commissioner.

So let's be cautious about Cameron and his supposed shortcomings. Yes, the Tories should have won an outright majority in May. Yes, he was lucky that Clegg, not Charles Kennedy or Menzies Campbell, was Lib Dem leader, otherwise the coalition would not have been a viable political option. But being decisive and lucky are the greatest assets a politician can have. And judging by the past 12 months, David Cameron has them in spades.

Like Cameron, Miliband won a leadership contest that few gave him much chance of securing. In 2011 he needs more of that luck and to be seen by the electorate as the next prime minister.

Benjamin Fox is political adviser to the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament.