Why IDS faces trouble next year

Observations on local elections

Credit where it's due: for once the Conservatives played like champions before this month's elections. In public, they made the absurd claim that they would gain only 30 council seats. The media rightly mocked the poverty of this ambition, but fell for the widely leaked "private" hopes of 200-300 gains. This became the unofficial yardstick on which Iain Duncan Smith's survival would depend: fewer than 200 and he would be a goner, more than 300 and he would be safe. No matter that the real midterm target for an opposition party contending for power should have been at least 1,000 extra councillors; when Tory gains topped 600, thoughts of a leadership challenge evaporated. The public/private double-bluff worked perfectly.

Next year could be a different story. There will be elections for the European Parliament and for most of England's district, metropolitan and unitary councils. Last time round, the Tories won both contests easily. In the 1999 Euro elections, conducted by proportional representation, they won 36 seats on a 36 per cent vote, seven seats more than Labour, whose share of the popular vote, 28 per cent, was as low as in the general election of 1983, when Michael Foot was leader.

In the 2000 local elections - in the council seats that will be contested again next year - the Tories did even better, winning 38 per cent of the vote, against Labour's 29 per cent.

Iain Duncan Smith, if he is to safeguard his position, must continue to show that his party is making electoral progress: the sign against his party in the gains-and-losses table must, at the very least, be a plus. Next year, that will be a hard trick to pull off. Suppose that the division of party support is the same as in this month's elections: Conservatives 35 per cent, Labour 30, Lib Dems 27 (according to the definitive analysis by Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of Plymouth University). These figures allowed IDS to claim a triumph. But next year, because the Tories will be defending a higher baseline, they would result in the loss of one or two Euro seats and up to 100 councillors.

No doubt IDS will again play the expectations game with the media. He will point, rightly, to the difficulty of repeating the two greatest electoral triumphs of the William Hague era. He will go on to say, again rightly, that the 1999 Euro elections and the 2000 council elections produced appallingly low turnouts, when huge numbers of Labour supporters stayed at home. If many more people have postal votes next year, and the turnout rises, Labour is likely to reduce the Tory lead, even if not a single voter switches parties.

The grim truth for IDS is that neither of these arguments is likely to save him. If his party ends up losing more seats than it gains, he will appear to be doing even worse than Hague - who proceeded to lose the 2001 election disastrously.

This year, the basic truth - that Conservative support is nowhere near sufficient to make the party a serious challenger for government - was muffled by its unexpectedly large number of gains. Next year, that truth will be much harder to conceal, unless the Tories really do perform much better than they did this month. IDS is safe for now; but his survival until the next general election still hangs in the balance.