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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.

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

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.