If the 2015 election was shaping up to be a traditional two-party contest the Tories are in little doubt that they would win. They lead Labour by double-digit margins on leadership and the economy, the two factors that traditionally determine the result. Oppositions have won elections while trailing on one of these measures before (the Tories won in 1979 despite Jim Callaghan being preferred to Margaret Thatcher, and Labour won in 1997 despite lagging the Conservatives on the economy) but none has ever won while trailing on both.
What makes May 2015 so different is the rise of Ukip. The Tories feel like a superhero that has his old adversary beat but that faces an anarchic joker in the form of Nigel Farage. Ukip’s surge in the polls (most Lib Dems now expect to finish behind them on votes), which has largely come at the Conservatives’ expense, means that they are being forced to fight a war on two fronts. As David Cameron said recently: “I have a double battle on my hands – I have to win the blue/red fight but I also have to win back people in my own party.”
This complicates the crisp and clear message – trust us with the economy and keep Cameron as prime minister – that the Tories want to deliver. But as they look forward to the election, Conservative strategists believe that they have found a way to fight Labour and Ukip as one. As one explained to me, they will portray both as fundamentally unserious parties that lack a credible plan for the country, sowing an equivalent sense of doubt and risk about each. Labour, they will say, has failed to apologise for overspending, and is threatening to borow more, while Ukip is prepared to change its tax policies on a whim. By framing themselves as the “grown ups” prepared to level with the voters, they hope to see off Miliband and Farage in one sweep.
In this regard, the economic slowdown in the eurozone, which George Osborne has warned Britain will not be insulated from (the Treasury expects quarterly growth to fall from around 0.7-0.8 per cent to 0.5-0.6 per cent), could prove politically helpful. A stronger recovery could encourage voters to change captains in the belief that the storm has passed. As one Labour strategist once put it to me: “If they’re saying that the war’s been won, then people might start asking, ‘How do we win the peace?'” By making it clear that the battle is not over, and that there is too much at stake to change sides, the Tories hope to survive as the largest party.