Just before David Cameron took over as leader of the Conservative Party, it was accepted among those in the political class that it was impossible for the Tories to win the next election. It was simply too big a mountain to climb: merely to become the biggest group at Westminster, the party would need to sustain a six-percentage-point lead, and to gain an outright majority it would need to push that to ten points.
As the Conservatives prepared to select a new leader at their 2005 conference in Blackpool one thing was certain: whoever was chosen would face an insurmountable task. Now, as Cameron prepares to mark 12 months as Tory leader, he is talked of (in Labour as well as Tory circles) as having the potential to become the next prime minister.
The Cameron year has unquestionably transformed the political landscape. By focusing on the environment, “work/life balance”, poverty and the causes of crime, he has forced the Labour Party to reassess its priorities (if only to outflank the Tories from the right). Yet one constant in the surreal, shape-shifting world of 21st-century British politics has been the near impossibility of the Tories winning the next election.
Before the 2005 election, the Conservative election guru Lord Saatchi knew that his party could poll over a million votes more than Labour yet still secure fewer seats in parliament. The hard electoral facts remain the same: although the odd freak poll over the summer gave the Tories a ten-point lead, this has not proved sustainable. On present form, the best Cameron can hope for is a hung parliament.
It would be quite possible to write a narrative of Cameron’s first year as a disaster. Increasingly vocal critics in his own party can argue, with some justification, that by wrenching the Tories on to the centre ground, he has alienated core voters and activists, while failing to gain real traction in the polls. Despite Iraq, “cash for honours” and a lame-duck prime minister, Cameron has failed to convince enough of the electorate that their future would be safe in his hands. The only reason this narrative is not written more often is that the media are desperate for an opposition of substance. They have therefore been more than willing to help paint a picture of Cameron as a credible leader.
Make yourself popular
In a speech to black and Asian journalists on 29 November, Cameron struck a note of realism when he acknowledged that not enough was being done to create a more diverse group of Conservative candidates. His “A-list” approach may even have the effect of alienating the very people he had been hoping to attract, such is the hostility from the constituencies. Speaking at the Commission for Racial Equality’s Race Convention, Sayeeda Warsi, vice-chair of the Conservatives and an A-lister herself, told the audience she used to worry about being liked, or wonder if people in the party were just pretending to be nice to her. “Since I’ve been on the A list it’s easy – I just know that everybody hates me,” she said.
Labour should not lose the next election, and it is still quite conceivable that the party will win comfortably. But you wouldn’t know it from talking to Labour MPs around Westminster; they are already running scared. Some older politicians in this tired and battered government have begun to yearn for a period in opposition. A Blairite minister recently reminded me of a story on which we worked together, attacking Conservative education policy in the mid-1990s. “It was such fun. Sometimes I long to go back to doing that sort of thing,” said the seasoned campaigner, and shuffled off to another evening of red boxes.
The Tory revival is not all hype. The attack on the government’s NHS record, for instance, is bold and has ruffled feathers. One former cabinet minister recently outlined to me in colourful terms just how much this is hurting: “How the **** have we allowed them Tories to overtake us on the NHS? It’s a ****ing disgrace.”
The government has struggled to read Cameron’s strategy, but perhaps its thinking is too short-term. At the time of Cameron’s election, I was told by one rising star that the Tory revival was a two-election strategy. This would not be made explicit, for obvious reasons, but everyone with any sense in the party knew it to be the case, he said.
Here’s a scenario that Labour should be worried about, outlined to me by a senior pollster who understands the enormity of the Conservative task: it is just conceivable that Cameron will squeeze in as head of the largest party and take charge of a minority administration. Such a result would be catastrophic for Labour, which would descend into infighting and recrimination. At this point the two-election strategy would kick in. Cameron would have to wait only a matter of months before calling another election, which he would almost certainly win handsomely over a broken and demoralised opposition.