Don't be fooled by the economic recovery, the odds are still against a Tory win in 2015

The challenges facing the Conservatives are mostly structural and may be impossible to overcome.

The extraordinarily rapid recovery of Labour's popularity following its poor share of the vote in 2010 (29% - a 25-year low) should not be construed as evidence of Ed Miliband’s irresistible charisma. It was simply the inevitable consequence of the entry of the Liberal Democrats into coalition with the Conservatives, which left the left wing of the electorate with nowhere to go but Labour. Other parties used to carp that the Liberal Democrats stock in trade was appearing all things to all voters, thus enabling them to pick up the disillusioned voters of both the Conservatives and Labour. Not anymore. Polls indicate that the Lib Dems will lose about half of the 22% they managed to win at the last election, with most of it going to Labour.

But whilst the left has been united, the right has splintered. UKIP’s rise to national prominence has seen it take votes from all parties but most of all from the Conservatives (polls indicate that around 60% of UKIP supporters voted Conservative in 2010). Nigel Farage's party looks likely to do particularly well at the European elections in May 2014 (it always punches above its weight in the Europeans) and will likely reach the apex of its popularity just 12 months before the general election.

Some of this support is likely to ebb ahead of the 2015 election, particularly as it becomes clear to voters that a high UKIP vote will make a Miliband premiership more likely. But it is a near certainty that UKIP will build significantly on the 3% it polled in 2010, and that this will come largely at the Conservatives’ expense. Neither is the oft-mooted suggestion of an electoral pact between the Conservatives and UKIP likely to prove a neat solution either. Personal antipathy between David Cameron and Farage makes a full-scale pact nigh impossible, but there have been suggestions that the party could make deals with individual eurosceptic Conservative MPs. Polling data suggest this would do little good, however. This is because a hypothetical pact with UKIP causes a full quarter of the Conservatives’ current supporters to jump ship, with 5% going to Labour.

This encapsulates the Conservatives’ catch-22 going into the next election: try to hold the 'centre ground' and they encourage voters on the right to switch to UKIP, but try to shift rightwards or form a pact with UKIP and they stand to lose many more moderates.

The Conservatives’ challenge is compounded by the enduring difficulty they have connecting with ethnic minority voters. Data from the Runnymede Trust indicates that just 16% of non-white voters plumped for the Conservatives at the 2010 election, whilst 68% voted Labour. Since the Conservatives’ last majority victory in 1992, the contribution of ethnic minorities to the UK population has roughly doubled from 7% to 14% (figures from the 1991 and 2011 censuses for England and Wales). If the party cannot rein in Labour’s advantage then it may well find that demographics have moved decisively against it.

So could David Cameron’s personal popularity and campaigning abilities shoot Ed Miliband’s fox? Since the dust settled on the Labour leadership contest back in 2010, the Conservative Party has been smiling inwardly (and indeed outwardly) at Labour’s folly in plumping for 'Awkward Ed' Miliband over his brother, 'Dashing David'. There are two reasons why this is likely to prove a false comfort.

First, Britain’s is not a presidential system. Cameron is certainly more popular than Miliband – 37% say he would make the best Prime Minister versus 23% for Miliband. Yet history shows that success on this measure is not a guarantee of victory. Margaret Thatcher trailed Jim Callaghan by nearly 20% on the same question in 1979 and yet won a comfortable majority. John Major and Ted Heath were hardly barrels of charisma either. Second, Cameron is nowhere near as popular now as he was at the last election. His current net approval is -11%, at the last election it was +33%.

Labour strategists fret that their poll lead is 'soft'. Yet even their worst recent poll, an outlier which showed the Labour lead at just one point, would give the party a majority of four seats. The Conservatives by contrast could not win a majority even with a lead of 7% in 2010. With the economy improving, the likelihood is that the next election will be close in terms of national vote share, yet the obstacles in the way of the Conservatives even remaining the biggest party are so great, and the hurdle for Labour becoming the biggest party so low, that the distribution of seats looks likely to fall decisively in Labour’s favour. 

David Cameron with Ed Miliband as they stand in Westminster Hall ahead of an address by Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on June 21, 2012 . Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

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How the Brexit campaign lied to us – and got away with it

The Leave camp promised us all a unicorn and now claim they merely hinted at the possibility of a pony.

Whenever something cataclysmic happens in politics, there’s a temptation to trace it back to a single moment that set everything in motion: the shot heard around the world. Or, in the case of the night in the Commons bar where Eric Joyce lamped a fellow MP, prompting a fishy by-election in Falkirk that led to a fundamental reform of the Labour party rules, which enabled the election of Jeremy Corbyn, the punch that changed politics.

You can’t always identify the flap of the butterfly’s wings that creates a hurricane. The EU referendum result was driven by many factors: class, geography, differential turnout, culture and education. Even the broad conclusions – more older voters turned out and they were heavily pro-Brexit; cities went for Remain – must be qualified: why was Liverpool a win for Remain while Sunderland picked Leave?

If there is one sentence that explains the referendum result, though, it’s this one from the website of the Advertising Standards Agency. “For reasons of freedom of speech, we do not have remit over non-broadcast ads where the purpose of the ad is to persuade voters in a local, national or international electoral referendum.” In other words, political advertising is exempt from the regulation that would otherwise bar false claims and outrageous promises. You can’t claim that a herbal diet drink will make customers thinner, but you can claim that £350m a week will go to the NHS instead of the European Union.

The brains behind the Leave victory discovered this loophole in their earlier incarnation as the NoToAV campaign, promising that the cost of a new voting system would deprive babies in incubators or squaddies in Afghanistan of a spurious figure plucked from the air. And they got away with it.

Will they pull off the same trick again? It was noticeable how quickly the twin planks of the Leave campaign – extra money for the health service, and the implicit promise to cut immigration by “taking back control” of our borders – fell apart. On Good Morning Britain just hours after the result was declared, Nigel Farage decried the NHS pledge as a “mistake” (he was not part of the official Leave campaign that made it).

That evening, the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan told Newsnight that “taking back control” of immigration didn’t necessarily mean cutting it. He advocated joining the single market: meaning that if Turkey does join the EU, Britain will be obliged to accept freedom of movement for its citizens. And we won’t have a veto on Turkish accession. (When we leave the EU, we will also lose automatic access to the scheme by which failed asylum-seekers are returned to the country in which they first claimed sanctuary.)

The first few days after the referendum felt like an extended period of gaslighting – being told that things you could distinctly remember happening had not, in fact, happened. How could anyone think that the Leave campaign had promised an extra £350m for the NHS? The money was “an extrapolation . . . never total”, said Iain Duncan Smith on the BBC. It was merely part of a “series of possibilities of what you could do”. My eyes flicked from his pious face to Twitter, where someone had posted a picture of him standing next to the campaign bus. Its slogan read: “We send the EU £350m a week. Let’s fund the NHS instead.” Then I looked at the pinned Tweet for the chief executive of Vote Leave, Matthew Elliott, which reads: “Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week.” These people promised us a unicorn and now claim they merely hinted at the possibility of a Shetland pony.

More gaslighting was to come in Boris Johnson’s announcement, made through the impeccably democratic, anti-elitist medium of his £250,000-a-year Telegraph column. Of course, we would retain access to the single market, said Johnson. Britons would be allowed to travel and live freely wherever they wanted in Europe, while we could also “take back democratic control of immigration policy, with a balanced and humane points-based system to suit the needs of business and industry”. Unfortunately, to use a phrase beloved by my dad, if Johnson thinks Angela Merkel will give the UK everything we want without giving anything back, he must be crackers.

The debate about free movement will dominate politics all summer, as the Tory leadership contest runs until 2 September. The future direction of the country will be seen through the prism of tactical advantage within the Conservatives. A split is already emerging on the right: Michael Gove, who promised withdrawal from the single market during the campaign, has aligned himself with Johnson. On 28 June, sources close to Johnson said he had been “tired” when he wrote the column, and it would be “vetted” to avoid mixed messages in future.

For the Tories, an unappealing choice lies ahead. It looks as though Britain’s economy is already contracting, thanks to the uncertainty brought on by Brexit. Their 2015 Tory election campaign, which asserted that Ed Miliband was a “threat” to our economic
security, feels blackly humorous.

Some of the pain could be mitigated if Britain accepted a deal close to what we have now. But is that what people voted for? The Leave campaign told voters over and over that mass immigration was frightening and it should be curtailed, and that public services were about to be pumped full of cash clawed back from Brussels. Right now, it’s the Remainers who are angry. But what happens when those who backed Brexit to get back at the political class discover that they have been taken for a ride?

The Leave campaign won by pretending there are simple answers to our problems. They spurned nuance, compromise and trade-offs. They won an astonishing and unexpected victory. But at what price? 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies