When Ed Miliband declared before his meeting with Barack Obama at the White House, “I am going because I want to be prime minister of Britain in less than ten months,” he spoke with the conviction of a man who fully believes that he will be. The Labour leader’s self-confidence bewilders those in his party who predict that they will lose in May 2015, but it cannot be dismissed as delusional.
For the fourth summer in a row, the opposition has entered the parliamentary recess ahead in the polls and in the marginal seats that will determine the general election result. There is ill-disguised outrage among Conservatives and parts of the media that Miliband has made it this far. Those who regard him as unfit even to be leader of the opposition find it too painful to contemplate him in Downing Street.
Others, absorbing the data, are adjusting to the prospect of a Labour victory. When I told one Conservative MP that Miliband believes the press onslaught against him is motivated by the fear that he will win, not the belief that he will lose, he replied: “That’s exactly right.” The public admission by the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, that he is planning for negotiations with Labour in a hung parliament offered an insight into the calculations that many Liberal Democrats are making in private. Others are preparing to flee Westminster. There is no mystery as to why Dan Byles, the Conservative MP for North Warwickshire (with a majority of just 54), has become the eighth Tory elected in 2010 to announce that he will not defend his seat.
After 16 months of economic recovery, with GDP surpassing its pre-crisis peak, some Tories expected to have eroded Labour’s advantage by now. But their ratings, like the public’s wages, are flatlining. After briefly drawing level with inflation earlier this year, average earnings are now rising at the slowest rate since comparable records began in 2001. It is partly for this reason that, while trailing on economic management, Labour continues to lead as the party that would most improve living standards. David Axelrod, the Obama strategist hired by Labour, has noted with hope that this is the trend seen during the US president’s defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012.
Yet the moroseness among Labour’s ranks reflects the awareness that the party’s lead has more to do with antipathy for the Conservatives and the Lib Dems than sympathy for the opposition. “The most depressing thing is when people say, ‘We’re just voting for you to stop the Tories,’ ” an MP told me.
Others are finding alternative receptacles for their discontent. Michael Ashcroft’s most recent marginals poll found that Ukip is now in first place in Thurrock (Labour’s number-two target seat) and Thanet South (where Nigel Farage will likely soon announce his candidacy). The Greens are polling at their highest level since 1989. If the election produces a second successive hung parliament for the first time since 1910, it is this fracturing of the anti-government vote that will explain why.
The shared hope of Labour and Tory strategists is that voters will view the election as a binary choice between their two parties. But this summer, both will find themselves on the same side as they unite against Scottish independence. The possibility that the country could vote to secede from the UK on 18 September, after 307 years of union, makes the outcome of the general election appear almost trivial by comparison. But after a significant wobble early this year, Better Together campaigners are increasingly confident of victory, if less certain of achieving the double-digit win they believe is necessary to avoid a “neverendum”.
Most Conservatives are sincere unionists but some privately reflect that another opportunity to tilt the electoral landscape in their favour will have been missed. After the earlier defeat of the proposed boundary changes, Labour will now retain its 41 MPs north of the border (a figure certain to increase next year), while the Tories keep an electorally worthless one.
Provided that Scotland votes against secession, attention will shift to the least predictable election since 1992. Unusually, all three of the main party leaders will be able to tell his autumn conference, with a straight face, to “prepare for government”. But all fear what victory would bring.
For the Tories, it would mean an in/out referendum on the EU that could split the party as no issue has since the repeal of the Corn Laws. For Labour, it could mean inheriting a state that, in parts, is on the brink of collapse: a bankrupt NHS, an imploding housing market (forcing a precipitous rise in interest rates) and a prison system at full capacity, combined with the requirement to accelerate the deepest public-service cuts since the war, or raise taxes by an equivalent amount. “Sometimes I worry more about winning than losing,” one Labour frontbencher tells me.
Others fear an electoral outcome that creates a new crisis of legitimacy for Westminster: the Tories winning the most votes but Labour the most seats; the Lib Dems having fewer voters than Ukip but four times as many MPs; a parliament so hung that neither Labour nor the Tories can form a majority government, even with Lib Dem support. Some MPs are preparing for the possibility of a second general election that perhaps only the Conservatives would have the financial resources to fight adequately.
When not battling each other, all of the parties face a collective struggle to maintain relevance in an age of voter alienation. To most people, Westminster is the place where ignorant armies clash at night. Both Labour and the Tories, the two great tribes that once commanded 97 per cent of the vote between them, will be lucky to scrape home with much more than a third each. In this war of the weak, even the winner could end up feeling like a loser.