It was as the natural party of government that the Conservatives came to be feared and admired. But to MPs returning from the summer recess, the Tories more clearly resemble the natural party of opposition. The final traces of the discipline, pragmatism and ruthless desire to win that allowed them to govern for 57 years of the 20th century seem to be disintegrating.
Confronted by the defection of Douglas Carswell to Ukip, Labour is struggling to conceal its glee. “A gift from the gods” is how one shadow cabinet minister describes it to me. When Ukip triumphed over the Conservatives in the European elections in May, pushing the party into third place for the first time in a national contest, Labour set its watch and waited for the Tories’ Europe wars to re-erupt. They never did. The truce struck between David Cameron and his party’s cannibalistic tendency held in the face of Farage.
But Carswell’s “treachery” has broken the peace. “We will milk this for all it’s worth,” one Eurosceptic MP promises. Cameron is now under pressure to do precisely whathe hoped to avoid: to declare his EU renegotiation terms and to commit to campaign for withdrawal if he falls short. Carswell’s departure has established a new hierarchy of disloyalty in which opposition to the Prime Minister’s policy ranks some way below outright defection. Those who urge Cameron to use blackmail diplomacy abroad are now deploying it at home.
That the Tories are convulsed by an issue that does not even feature in the top ten of voters’ concerns is a clear sign that the party has lost its winning instincts. Another was the willingness to relinquish the planned boundary changes in return for the abandonment of House of Lords reform. Another still is the decision of so many new MPs in marginal seats (nine) to stand down rather than take their chances with the electorate.
The exodus of 2010-ers both reflects and reinforces the fear of defeat. I am told that Chris Kelly, the latest to announce his departure, was in talks with Ukip about a possible non-aggression pact. His decision and that of Carswell are reminders of what psephologically-minded MPs had already noted: far from bursting, the Ukip bubble is still swelling. To better understand the enemy, staff at CCHQ have been ordered to read Revolt on the Right, Matthew Goodwin’s and Robert Ford’s account of the structural and demographic forces behind the Farageiste ascent.
Labour watches all of this with contentment. After the recriminations that followed last year’s summer of slumber, the mood at the first shadow cabinet meeting of the new term was “buoyant”, in the words of one present. MPs are surprised at the continuing paucity of the Tories’ policy offer and at the absence of attempts to neutralise Labour’s advantage on living standards.
Yet the opposition cannot afford to be sanguine in the face of Ukip’s rise. On the micro level, Farage’s party poses an immediate threat in target seats such as Thurrock and a longer-term one in Labour’s northern fortresses. On the macro level, the ascendancy of a party that trades in cynicism and anti-politics creates a culture ever less hospitable to a social-democratic idealist such as Ed Miliband. The Ukip insurgency has robbed Labour of the energy and momentum that ordinarily accrue to an opposition party on the road to Downing Street. Miliband’s MPs are adept at providing arithmetical accounts of why they will win but, beyond an enduring resentment of the Tories, they struggle to provide political ones. Were it not for the anomaly of a centre-left party stranded in a right-wing coalition, most doubt they would be ahead at all.
The narrowing of the Scottish independence polls is another symptom of the opposition’s weakness. Rather than the prospect of a Labour-led Union after May 2015, it is Alex Salmond’s vision of independence that is enticing the party’s working-class redoubts.
Labour strategists are alive to the danger of winning the election by default, lacking a mandate for bold change and the popular support necessary to sustain a government through another parliament of austerity. The answer will require resolving the divide that has long existed between those who favour a small-target strategy that limits the Tories’ room for attack and those who believe only the promise of a “rupture” with the past will attract voters to Labour. “People aren’t yet convinced that we’re prepared to make the changes required. That’s why they’re playing footsie with Farage,” one shadow cabinet member tells me. To others, the Ukip surge is evidence of the need to offer reassurance, above all else, on the issues of the deficit, welfare and immigration.
The tension is greatest in the case of the NHS. The desire to sustain the health service (the issue on which Labour enjoys its largest poll lead) and to carve potent dividing lines with the Tories competes with the fear that a party devoted to reducing the “cost of living” cannot credibly commit to a rise in general taxation. The solution, combined with a definitive and radical policy on tuition fees, will likely form the centrepiece of Labour’s conference.
In 2011, Miliband told his party: “Don’t believe this stuff about governments losing elections, rather than oppositions winning them. It sounds to me like a consolation prize for opposition leaders that have lost. I’m not interested in consolation prizes.” But rarely in this parliament has it felt more like the government is losing and less like the opposition is winning. Some in Labour are in danger of giving the appearance that they believe Cameron’s MPs will do a better job of finishing him off than they can. Yet the job of defeating a government should not be outsourced or subcontracted. If Miliband wants to wear the crown, he must wield the knife.