The seven-year rule: why Labour doesn't think Cameron will save the Tories in 2015

History shows that after seven years at the top, politicians' ratings go into decline - and Cameron can't afford to lose votes in 2015.

One of the main reasons why the Tories remain confident that they will be the largest party after 2015 is that David Cameron continues to lead Ed Miliband as "the best prime minister" (by 35-24 when YouGov last asked the question). By framing the election as a presidential contest, they believe they can erode Labour's poll lead. 

But as I argue in my NS politics column this week, such optimism is misplaced. History shows that a well-liked (or, more accurately, less disliked) leader is no guarantee of electoral success. In the final poll before the 1979 election, Jim Callaghan enjoyed a 19-point lead over Margaret Thatcher as "the best prime minister" but the Tories still won a majority of 44 seats. Similarly, in the 1970 election, Harold Wilson's 23-point lead over Ted Heath failed to prevent Labour suffering a decisive defeat.

There is no reason to believe that Cameron's ratings will be enough to offset the toxicity of the Tory brand, not least because he's now been Conservative leader for nearly eight years. As I write in the column, one shadow cabinet minister recently cited Gordon Brown’s "seven years theory" (as distilled in Damian McBride’s memoir) to me as evidence of why Cameron will struggle to deliver a Conservative victory. According to this rule, after a politician has spent this long in the public eye, the voters invariably start to tire of them.

It was after Tony Blair pledged to serve a full third term in 2004 that Brown lamented: 

I’ve already had seven years. Once you’ve had seven years, the public start getting sick of you. You’ve got seven years when you’ve got a chance to get people on board, but after that, you’re on the down slope. I’ve tried not to be too exposed, but it’s still seven years. The only chance was getting in next year before the election. Tony knows that. Every year that goes by, the public are going to say: 'Not that guy Brown, we’re tired of him – give us someone new.'

McBride adds: "We talked a while about the 'seven years' theory. It was clearly informed by the US Presidential system, but GB went through a series of British politicians and made the same point. He argued that Margaret Thatcher – despite carefully rationing her public appearances (a point made by Peter Bingle in his Friday musing) – was on the slide in public opinion even at the time of the 1987 election, and that Churchill had only bucked the trend by continually re-inventing himself."

Thatcher and Tony Blair were insulated from defeat by the large majorities they won in their pomp (both losing votes at every general election they fought) but this luxury is not available to Cameron. Unless he can increase the Conservatives’ vote share (as no sitting prime minister has done since 1974, and that only by the means of a second election eight months after a hung parliament), Labour will almost certainly be the largest party after the election. Miliband continues to retain the support of more than a quarter of 2010 Liberal Democrat voters, a swing greater than the cumulative increase in the Conservative vote between 1997 and 2010. 

Cameron and George Osborne take inspiration from the Tories’ unlikely triumph in 1992, the first campaign in which they were involved, but they have forgotten one important ingredient: a change of prime minister. It was only after John Major replaced Thatcher in November 1990, just 16 months before the election, that the Conservatives' poll ratings recovered to the point where victory was conceivable. 

Will Cameron, who failed to win a majority under exceptionally advantageous circumstances in 2010, be the PM who bucks the seven rule? Don't bet on it. 

David Cameron arrives on October 25, 2013 for the second day of a European Council meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

David Cameron shows Labour how to do it

Leftwing rhetoric masked rightwing reality in Cameron's conference speech.

“The tanks are in the kitchen,” was the gloomy verdict of one Labour staffer to a speech in which the Prime Minister roamed freely into traditional left-wing territory.

But don’t be fooled: David Cameron is still the leader of an incredibly right-wing government for all the liberal-left applause lines.

He gave a very moving account of the difficulties faced by careleavers: but it is his government that is denying careleavers the right to claim housing benefit after they turn 22.

He made a powerful case for expanding home ownership: but his proposed solution is a bung for buy-to-let boomers and dual-earner childless couples, the only working-age demographic to do better under Cameron than under Labour.

On policy, he made just one real concession to the left: he stuck to his guns on equal rights and continued his government’s assault on the ridiculous abuse of stop-and-search. Neither of these are small issues, and they are a world away from the Conservative party before Cameron – but they also don’t cost anything.

In exchange for a few warm words, Cameron will get the breathing space to implement a true-blue Conservative agenda, with an ever-shrinking state for most of Britain, accompanied by largesse for well-heeled pensioners, yuppie couples, and small traders.

But in doing so, he gave Labour a lesson in what they must do to win again. Policy-wise,it is Labour – with their plans to put rocketboosters under the number of new housing units built – who have the better plan to spread home ownership than Cameron’s marginal solutions. But last week, John McDonnelll focussed on the 100,000 children in temporary accomodation. They are undoubtedly the biggest and most deserving victims of Britain’s increasingly dysfunctional housing market. But Labour can’t get a Commons majority – or even win enough seats to form a minority government – if they only talk about why their policies are right for the poor. They can’t even get a majority of votes from the poor that way.

What’s the answer to Britain’s housing crisis? It’s more housebuilding, including more social housing. Labour can do what Cameron did today in Manchester – and deliver radical policy with moderate rhetoric, or they can lose.

But perhaps, if Cameron feels like the wrong role model, they could learn from a poster at the People’s History Museum, taken not from Labour’s Blairite triumphs or even the 1960s, but from 1945: “Everyone – yes, everyone – will be better off under a Labour government”.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.