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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.