The Tories think they’re winning – but it’s the coalition that is beating Labour

With a Conservative majority almost certainly out of reach, Cameron must redefine as victory something the Tories have tasted once before as defeat.

The terrace of the House of Commons, overlooking the Thames, is full of basking Tories these days. As parliament goes into its summer recess, the mood in the Conservative Party has, like the weather, turned sunny with a fierce edge.

David Cameron’s troops feel they are winning battles. On a range of potent issues – the economy, immigration, welfare – the Conservatives comfortably control the debate. They boast that they will cut here and clamp down there, while defying Labour to prove its willingness to do the same. Doubting that those are even the right remedies has become a sideline lament. Labour’s lead in opinion polls looks flimsy.

A measure of the Tories’ confidence is the venom in their attacks on Labour’s record of running the National Health Service. Conservative MPs have used the publication of a review of hospital mortality rates to hurl charges of lethal neglect at Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, who ran the department under Gordon Brown.

Downing Street knows that the public is suspicious of Tory motives towards the NHS. In campaign terms, the best that No 10 can hope for is making it that little bit harder for Labour to occupy the moral high ground. So the attacks on Burnham are a tactic to trash the opposition’s credentials as champions of a cherished national institution. Cameron was once reluctant to be drawn into partisan warfare over the NHS. That squeamishness has gone. The plan now is simpler and applicable in every area, regardless of policy. As one Tory close to No 10 puts it: “We beat Labour to a pulp.”

This bloodlust reflects the influence of Lynton Crosby, the Australian campaign strategist who was hired for his mastery of bare-knuckle politics. It is working. Conservative MPs are given regular pep talks by Crosby, in which they are shown encouraging polling numbers and drilled in attack lines. They can see that Labour is under pressure and are happier and more loyal to their leader as a result. It is unclear whether this level of aggression can be sustained over two years without alienating the public. Some Tory moderates worry that Cameron needs to look like a reasonable man governing for the whole nation, not the alpha dog of a snarling pack. Crosby has made the Tories good at hammering but not everything in politics is a nail.

At least bashing Labour is something that every Conservative can agree on. Developing new policies risks reviving the culture war between the party’s “modernisers” and “traditionalists”. Besides, nothing can be enacted this side of a general election without seeking permission from the Lib Dems and granting concessions if they object. Few things animate the rebellious urges of Tories like a reminder of their subordination to Nick Clegg.

Loathing of coalition is deepening on the Conservative benches as more MPs of a certain age feel their chances of ministerial office slipping away for ever. Yet inside government, the power-sharing arrangement feels more stable than it has done in a long time. Insiders from both parties describe the completion of negotiations for last month’s Spending Review as a revelation. Lib Dems and Tories managed to coalesce around a shared set of tricky economic proposals, while fighting partisan policy battles – over deregulation of nursery places, over participation in European Union criminal justice co-operation, over internet surveillance. That choreography, Lib Dem ministers say, should kill off any doubts that the coalition will go the distance. Meanwhile, Cameron and George Osborne are determined to keep open the option of renewing the arrangement for a second term. Senior figures in the government say that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have stared at the electoral arithmetic and realised that, even in best-case scenarios, their reliance on the Lib Dems may endure beyond 2015. To win a majority, Cameron needs to hold on to every voter he had in 2010 – a rare feat for an incumbent – and then win over a bunch of Lib Dem and Labour swing voters and also see off a challenge from Ukip. It is not impossible but it would need the opposition to panic and crumble.

Although the two governing parties will campaign against each other, they will both be defending the same record. That will revive the two-against-one dynamic that made it so hard for Labour to get its economic arguments across after the last election – a handicap from which Ed Miliband has yet to recover fully. If the next parliament is hung and Labour is not the biggest party, it will feel like an endorsement of the status quo and so a victory for the combined coalition forces. At that point, backbench Tory hatred of Clegg will become a big problem for Cameron. The pressure to go it alone would be immense. A former Tory cabinet minister tells me: “We are in danger of getting to where we are now in terms of seats, having persuaded people that it’s working, and then not being able to recreate the government that delivered it.”

The last election was kinder to Cameron than it was to his party. He got to be Prime Minister; they had to share power with the Lib Dems – an unforgivable affront. Given Tory misgivings about Cameron, he has done well in recent weeks to instil confidence in his MPs that Labour can be beaten. For his next trick, he needs to persuade them that they can win. That will be tricky, as it will surely require redefining as victory something the Tories have tasted once before as defeat.

"Although the two governing parties will campaign against each other, they will both be defending the same record." Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

Photo: Getty
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The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

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

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