Why the Tories are wrong to hope for a Thatcher-style poll recovery

Unlike Thatcher in the 1980s, the current Conservative Party does not enjoy the advantage of a divided left.

Having trailed Labour in every poll since 18 March (three days before George Osborne's fateful Budget), the Conservatives are consoling themselves with the thought that they have been here before. Margaret Thatcher, they recall, often lagged behind in the polls but twice recovered to win landslide victories in 1983 and 1987. At the Conservative conference earlier this month, David Cameron told a 1922 Committee/ConservativeHome reception that between 1983 and 1987, the Tories averaged just 24 per cent in the polls but went on to win a majority of 102 seats at the election. While he would "settle for less than that", he believed that "boundaries or no boundaries", the Tories could win. It's not just Cameron who is seeking to strike a more optimistic tone. Ken Clarke recently told the cabinet that "he had never been in a government that had been more popular at mid-term." With unemployment and inflation down, and the economy out of recession (although for how long remains to be seen), some Tories are beginning to dream of a majority again. But a closer analysis of the polls suggests that they're wrong to be so sanguine.

First, it's unclear which polls Cameron is referring to when he claims that the Tories averaged support of 24 per cent between 1983 and 1987. As UK Polling Report's comprehensive archive of polls shows, only once (on 12 August 1985) did backing for the party fall this low. Cameron probably meant to say that support for the Tories averaged 24 per cent at this stage in Thatcher's second term (as his personal pollster Andrew Cooper is reported to have told the cabinet), but even this claim doesn't stand up. In 1985, support for the party more often stood at around 33 per cent. The Thatcher recovery was not as great as the Tories suggest.

Second, unlike Thatcher, the current Conservative Party does not enjoy the advantage of a divided left. One of the biggest obstacles to a Labour majority in the 1980s was the strength of the SDP-Liberal Alliance, which won 25.4 per cent of the vote in the 1983 election and 22.6 per cent in 1987. It is the present weakness of the Lib Dems that is one of the biggest obstacles to a Conservative majority.

While it is the Tories who are in second place in most Lib Dem seats (38 compared to 17 for Labour), any gains they make from Nick Clegg's party are likely to be outweighed by the gains Labour makes as Lib Dem defectors carry the party to victory in Tory marginals (see Rob Ford's recent post "Who benefits from a Lib Dem collapse?" for more on this). We are seeing this trend at work in the Corby by-election, where a recent poll by Lord Ashcroft found that support for Labour had risen from 39 per cent to 54 per cent since the general election, while support for the Lib Dems had plummeted from 15 per cent to five per cent. Corby is one of 38 Labour-Tory marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory, showing the potential for Miliband's party to make significant gains even if Clegg's party partially recovers before 2015. In addition, while existing Lib Dem MPs, many of whom enjoy large local followings, are likely to benefit from an incumbency effect, it is the Tories, not Labour, who will suffer as a result (as I noted, Cameron's party is in second place in 38 of the Lib Dems' 57 seats).

Finally, while the Conservatives' core vote has held up better than many expected (the latest YouGov poll puts them on 33 per cent, down just three per cent since the general election), there is no evidence of the party advancing beyond this. The Tories are still in retreat in those areas – the north, Wales, Scotland – that denied them a majority at the last election. Rather than drawing false comfort from history, the Conservatives should focus on adopting the policies needed to change this, something they currently show little sign of doing.

The Conservatives hope that David Cameron, like Margaret Thatcher, will overturn Labour's poll lead before the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad