The numbers show that they are losing but, in Birmingham, the Tories had the swagger of winners. After Labour’s funereal conference, the opposition was regarded as having relinquished any right to govern. The phrase that one heard repeatedly from Conservative MPs was: “We deserve to win.” They believed that their achievements, emblazoned on Soviet-style banners across the conference site, were unquestionably worthy of another term in office. If Labour resembled a butler nervously carrying a Ming vase across a polished floor, as Roy Jenkins said of Tony Blair before 1997, the Conservatives were like a feared sports team hungrily chasing a win.
It is comforting for the Tories to view the election as a diametrical battle between themselves and an anaemic opposition. Historically, they have specialised in overturning once-stubborn Labour poll leads and cruising to victory. It is the institutional memory of these campaigns that explains the confidence of some senior Conservatives in an eleventh-hour swingback. Downing Street regards the Scottish independence referendum, in which the polls narrowed sharply in the final fortnight, as “instructive” of how opinion can shift once voters concentrate their minds.
All of the normally reliable metrics point to a Conservative victory. David Cameron leads Ed Miliband by 16 points as “the best prime minister”; the Tories lead Labour by 13 points as the best party to “manage the economy”. Oppositions have won while trailing on one of these measures but none has ever won while trailing on both.
It is these figures that inspire Boris Johnson and Kenneth Clarke to suggest that the next election will resemble the Tories’ 1983 vanquishing of Labour. At a conference fringe event, George Osborne, a keen student of history, asserted that only if “the rules of British politics have been rewritten” would the Tories lose. The danger for him is precisely that they have. As both Cameron and Osborne now publicly concede, they are not fighting a classic red-blue battle as their predecessors did but a war on two fronts. The Ukip problem and how to solve it absorbed more intellectual energy at the conference than Labour’s continuing advantage.
If the defection of Douglas Carswell inspired sorrow, the defection of Mark Reckless aroused anger. Usually docile Tories delivered torrents of profanities at the mention of his name. The resulting by-election in Rochester and Strood is viewed, in the words of one cabinet minister, as a chance to “cut Ukip off at the legs” and to turn “a crisis into an opportunity”. But even if the Conservatives retain the seat by waging total war on Reckless, there will be little comfort to draw. Ukip’s forward march will have been halted but the Farageists will remain deep inside Tory territory and finite time and resources will have been expended on a constituency that the party won with a majority of 9,953 in 2010. Such was the determination of the Tories’ campaign manager, Lynton Crosby, to avoid these interruptions that he vetoed the nomination of any MP as Britain’s new EU commissioner.
If the ascent of Ukip was the only electoral anomaly that the Tories had to contend with, they could afford to be more sanguine. But with the simultaneous collapse of the Liberal Democrats, to the overwhelming benefit of Labour, they are caught in a perfect storm. A senior Conservative MP told me that it was this trend that had condemned his party to defeat, cursing the Tories’ failure to protect their coalition partners by avoiding any increase in tuition fees.
Had Cameron won a majority in 2010 and embarked on single-party rule, the Lib Dem vote would never have fallen so far. Indeed, in an alternate reality, it is Nick Clegg who is the beneficiary, rather than the victim, of the anti-establishment mood. As it stands, the Tories’ prospects in the Labour-Conservative marginals that will determine the result are heavily reliant on a Lib Dem recovery that few now think likely.
It is the combination of this psephological horror show with the largest fiscal contraction since the 1970s and the longest fall in living standards since the 1870s which most suggests Osborne’s beloved “rules” may have been rewritten. When wages briefly drew level with inflation in April, many said that the “cost-of-living crisis” was at an end. Yet, six months later, real-terms earnings are still falling. Labour strategists are struck by the Tories’ continuing conflation of the economy with the deficit, an issue that their private polling shows is far less salient than that of living standards.
Osborne blamed his 2009 “age of austerity” speech for the Tories’ failure to achieve a majority. But five years on, the Chancellor delivered a still more spartan address. His aides argue that the promise of an unprecedented two-year freeze in working-age benefits will force Labour to say which cuts it would make, or which taxes it would raise. But Tory MPs fear that the decision will backfire. “How am I meant to explain to my constituents that their tax credits have been cut because their wages haven’t risen?” one told me.
Faced with all this, the Tories wrap themselves in the comfort blanket of Ed Miliband’s dismal poll ratings, an act undermined by the possibility that many intend to vote Labour regardless. The uncomfortable truth for the Tories is that there is little the party can now do to alter the fundamentals of the election. The strategy has been set and the themes have been chosen. As Crosby is fond of remarking, “You can’t fatten a pig on market day.” It will be for a future Conservative leader, if he or she is wise, to revive Cameron’s original mission of expanding his party’s shrivelled tent. Behind their swagger, the Tories are left, like Mr Micawber, hoping that something will turn up.