Nerves are fraying in the Conservative Party. Old stagers such as Michael Heseltine have come out of the retirement home to urge us to keep calm and carry on. Many Tories cling to the view that, when confronted with the polling booth and the ballot paper on 7 May, the Great British Public – or at least the Great English Public – will realise that the Miliband/Sturgeon Terror simply cannot be contemplated and will vote accordingly. But something has started to crack. Or, precisely, two things: the belief that Ed Miliband would have a “Sheffield rally” moment (he hasn’t and he won’t); and that Dave would turn on the turbocharger (he hasn’t and, despite his increasingly hernia-inducing efforts to feign passion, he probably won’t). And the election is but a few days away.
I have never known a campaign in which candidates and pundits have been so fixated by bookmakers’ odds, perhaps because the bookies have never offered such a range of services to those who wish to lose their money on the political game. As one candidate put it to me, “People lie to opinion polls. They tend not to lie with their money.” That, too, explains the pessimism: the money is going on Miliband to become prime minister, eventually. Cameron may have to be defeated on a Queen’s Speech first, because polls suggest his may still be the largest party, but Miliband staggers ashore in the end. And that means defeat, again, for the Tories. If the parliament runs its fixed term, it would be 28 years without an outright Tory victory, something that didn’t happen even in the party’s locust years in the 19th century. And with defeat would come division, upheaval and recrimination. The anti-Cameron faction in the party (which is considerable) is already sharpening its blades.
Despite the now prevailing sense that time is running out and the ship may not be turned around, the Cameronistas are not yet in despair. The news from the West Country remains good; there are hopes of Lib Dem seats elsewhere; Ukip looks weaker; and they are heartened by Nick Clegg’s assertion that in a hung parliament the party with the most seats retains the democratic legitimacy. Most Tories, of whatever faction, still believe they will be the largest party because of what seems certain to happen to Labour in Scotland and because of the gains they expect to make from the Lib Dems. However, there may not be that many Lib Dems left with whom they can get into bed, and some bookies (who have nonetheless shortened the odds on a new Con/Lib coalition) predict that just eight will survive, though most put the likely figure in the teens. So the SNP, with perhaps 45 or 50 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats, would have the whip hand; Nicola Sturgeon would be in a position to put a Miliband administration in power on a confidence-and-supply arrangement on which, under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, it could survive for five years.
“We need to ensure we compose the narrative that explains away a defeat,” a senior anti-Cameron Tory said to me. By this, he meant that what he called the “Blairism” of the past five years should be explicitly blamed for yet another failure to elect a Conservative government and Cameron should be held responsible. The right, to be fair, has been on its best behaviour for the past year or more. When needled and provoked by the progressive smell of some policies, it has held its tongue. When affronted by the dismissals of ministers it liked, such as Owen Paterson, or aggrieved by the demotions of those with whom it had sympathy, such as Michael Gove, it made barely a protest. “Whatever happens,” a retired rebel said to me, “we are not going to be blamed for losing the election, like we were in 1997.”
However, there is an anticipation of the atmosphere of defeat that does remind one of 1997. There will be no landslide and the Tory party may even sit on the edge of power. But many expect Cameron to go quickly, and then a leadership contest that would end in a plebiscite in the country between Theresa May and Boris Johnson.
As with Miliband’s Labour, they fear that the party would end up with a leader whom a vote of the wider movement has forced on a parliamentary party that expressly does not want him. In the past weeks, potential MPs of the left, right and centre of the Conservative Party have told me of their horror at the prospect of Boris Johnson becoming their leader: for there is no Alec Douglas-Home to come through the middle. His buffoonish performance against Ed Miliband on The Andrew Marr Show was not needed to prove their point but it has. There were two sides out there but only one was playing serious politics.
For a party in power to talk days before an election about defeat, about spinning the reasons for that defeat and about the leadership contest that may follow is hardly good news for the Tories now or in the future. Some of the more level-headed suggest that if Cameron is indeed the leader of the largest single party, he should, before doing anything else, suggest an immediate constitutional convention to thrash out an equitable arrangement, similar to a federation, between the four parts of the United Kingdom. One said to me that Labour could be “embarrassed” into signing up to such a convention and that the SNP would forfeit its credibility if it refused to take part. “They did, after all, lose their bloody referendum,” another Tory remarked.
Or – and one encounters this opinion more and more – there could be a grand coalition between Labour and the Tories based on saving the Union, renewing Trident and, at some point, ending the deficit. One senses when one hears this that the Tories are just one step below desperation, and that that state could be achieved any day now.