If the Tories had set out in government with the aim of deliberately making themselves unpopular, they might not have proceeded very differently. What would a strategy for Conservative electoral suicide have required? The economy suffocated. (Tick!) The party brand painted in old contaminants: tax favours for the rich, public services cut, chaos in the NHS, boggleeyed tilts at European windmills, scowls for immigrants. (Tick!) The whole package seasoned with division, U-turns and incompetence. (Tick!)
Given that conditions are ideal for a rout, Labour’s difficulty in sustaining a doubledigit lead in the opinion polls is cause for discreet optimism in the upper echelons of the Tory party. The proximity of Ed Miliband’s tail lights is taken as proof that the race is not yet lost. Likewise, the persistent sight of David Cameron and George Osborne staring in the rear-view mirror is sufficient to bring on an attack of Labour collywobbles.
The past few weeks have been disorientating for the opposition. The ceremonial mourning of Margaret Thatcher allowed Conservatives to parade old economic and cultural victories as if they were freshly won trophies. The protocols of respect for the dead ended up polarising left-wing dissent between the modest and the distasteful.
Then, just as the Tories experienced a moment of solemn concord, Labour’s unity fractured. Writing in the New Statesman, Tony Blair warned Miliband (without naming him) against settling into an easy, lefty groove, in which the party is little more than “a repository for people’s anger”.
Blair’s intervention triggered a spasm of factional score-settling. In the past fortnight, Labour has looked like a chapter of some weird historical re-enactment society, playing out classic mid-Noughties battles in moth-eaten costumes, armed with a shoddy arsenal of briefings and smears.
Senior Tories are thrilled by this spectacle. It seems to confirm their calculation that Miliband is propped up by a fragile lattice of untaken decisions, stop-gap policies and unworkable ideological truces. All it takes to bring the edifice crashing down, in No 10’s view, is a sustained period of discipline among Conservative MPs and a glimmer of good economic news.
Neither of those conditions has been easy to procure so far, although the first of them – well-behaved backbenchers – looks less fanciful now than it has done for a while. It isn’t just solidarity in grief at Thatcher’s passing away that has brought Tory voices together in harmony. Lynton Crosby, Downing Street’s Australian campaign strategist, demands that MPs be loyal or silent. Many agree to be spoon-fed Crosby’s message because it is meaty enough on issues such as welfare and immigration to please the traditional Tory palate. They are also relieved that someone in No 10 seems focused on winning. The rest of the Downing Street machine is written off as a mediocre salon where Cameron’s dilettante chums are served by lumpen civil servants.
There is still a cohort of anti-Cameron Tories who accept defeat in 2015 as a stage on the road to the ideological purification of the party but these Tory Trots are a small minority. By putting the party on a more aggressive footing, Crosby appears to have persuaded some of the less dogmatic doubters to bury their grievances with No 10. “Even the people who are deeply unhappy with Cameron because he’s been rude to them or they’ve missed out on promotion are starting to understand that trying to change the leadership at this stage is a bit stupid,” says one Tory MP
That doesn’t mean the rebellious spirit is crushed. Cameron only ever wins respite from backbench pressure, never release. A massacre in local elections on 2 May could trigger fresh panic.
Discipline is a feasible condition for a Conservative revival, not a reliable one. Like everything else, it depends on the economy. No one thinks there will be a spectacular recovery by 2015 but Tory optimists expect sufficient growth next year – “anaemic but enough”, in the words of one Cameron adviser – to permit a campaign warning that Labour would turn the clock back.
It isn’t hard to find opposition MPs who fret about such a scenario but their leader dismisses it as a delusion. Tiny increments added to gross domestic product in 2014 will do nothing to ease the pressure on households struggling with low wages and a rising cost of living, Miliband’s allies argue.
Conservatives who claim that things are getting better will just be taunting voters with their complacency. “We’d like nothing more than for Tories to come out and start saying the economy is fixed,” a senior Labour strategist tells me.
For that reason, Conservative MPs are still under orders not to declare sightings of green shoots. Yet many privately think that this is their lowest ebb. They suspect that enough voters are resigned to austerity as a necessary hardship and don’t believe Labour when it says there is another, less painful way. They look at opinion polls and note that opposition ratings usually peak midterm and shrink as polling day nears. They sense that there is a civil war that Labour somehow failed to have in 2010 but that might still break out if Miliband’s lead can be made to shrivel into the margin of error.
In those circumstances, a second term for Cameron starts to look plausible. Errant MPs herded into a ragged line by the Australian attack dog; paltry growth that is just better than nothing; Labour disarray – it is neither an inspiring nor a sure strategy for a comeback, but these three straws are the only ones the Tories have to grasp.