By last weekend, morale, if not expectations, had perked up among Tories. Word from the marginals was that their vote was “hardening”. This was partly because of a return, it seemed, of former Ukip apostates focusing on their moment in the polling booth, and partly because of what candidates found was a growing scepticism among uncommitted voters about Ed Miliband. The Russell Brand stunt resonated with many on a scale from ill-advised to contemptible. Those who watched the Labour leader’s performance on Question Time, where he was (to use a Kinnockism of old) kebabbed by a voter over his grasp of what might constitute overspending, felt the episode gouged an old and unpleasant wound. And the unveiling on 3 May of an eight-foot limestone monolith with Labour’s alarmingly vacuous “vows” engraved on it had Tories chuckling over the hubris and preposterousness of the event.
But why has it been such a struggle for the Tories to prevail when they should easily have made a case for having exercised relatively responsible stewardship of Britain since 2010? The absence of catastrophe should have made it simple to hold seats they won then. They were already heavily represented in the more prosperous parts of England and Wales, and it is there, especially, that life has improved for voters. The economy is steady, and it was only the threat late this past week of a Miliband minority administration, helped, from time to time, by the Scottish National Party, that sent the currency south and rattled the stock market. Yet the Tories have laboured to try to persuade even former core voters that if they want consolidation rather than risk, they should vote Conservative.
Whatever the outcome, there are lessons the Tories must learn from their lacklustre campaign, assuming they can override their chronic arrogance. Perhaps the foremost is that if the conduct of the battle is mainly to be vested in a leadership without convictions – or that has to be told by hired public relations help what convictions it should profess – then it is very hard to excite the electorate. Ideology is a dirty word in the party today but a system of beliefs that informs leadership must be preferable to the jerk of the knee and the instinct to bolt. Tories groaned at David Cameron’s pitiful proposal to pass a law to ban higher taxes. It was not just the idiocy of a government legally preventing itself from increasing supply in, for example, a time of national emergency; it was as if Cameron was saying to voters that, because of his and his colleagues’ incipient dishonesty and untrustworthiness, he would pass a law against his party’s own moral degeneracy. It smelled not just of short-termism, but of panic, and hardly suggested a party with the level-headedness required to govern.
The party has felt the want of a decent voluntary organisation. Its grandees boast that it alone has the money to fight a second election, which makes it all the more unfortunate that, as things stand, its Fixed-Term Parliaments Act makes it unlikely that there will be one. But it relies on social media, the internet and television – even the printed press is now regarded as old hat – rather than on an army of activists.
In terms of public engagement, this is a disaster: it is just as well, perhaps, that there hasn’t been much of a message to transmit. The general perception of the Tory campaign, in so far as it has been perceived at all by a public that is largely uninterested, is that it is remote and consists of overprivileged people telling “ordinary people” what is good for them. This effect has been countered by some excellent local campaigns, but the national impression has been one of detachment, or that those who wish to be asked to govern again live in a parallel universe.
But, for all that, the party went into the last days of the campaign with its head up. The belief has spread that the Tories will find it easier to form some sort of government than Labour will. This was fed by Nick Clegg’s assertion that he would not be happy to coalesce with the second-largest party; and by Miliband’s apparent undertaking not to do a deal with the SNP. In truth, no one knows what will happen, because it is nearly a century since the two leading parties had such a low share of the vote between them as is likely this week. Also, the British governing class – politicians and civil servants – has acquired the habit of making up the constitution as it goes along: which is why we have the fixed-terms act, and why, as a consequence, we may be on the verge of the greatest constitutional crisis since 1911.
What the next government needs is moral authority – something that Labour figures have recognised in their own qualms about whether Miliband, if Labour comes a clear second, can govern legitimately. Moral authority would stem from democratic authority. Tories especially wonder whether, if their party puts up a Queen’s Speech, Labour would be wise to combine with the SNP to defeat it, and then rely on the SNP in votes of confidence and to pass a budget.
Where, they ask, would be the moral authority in that, given the SNP’s determination to end the Union represented in parliament? Well, it is exactly what the Irish party did for the Asquith government after 1910, if a precedent be sought.
But in 1910 the Irish were leaving the Union because of a government-backed home rule bill. Miliband is, by contrast, strongly for it. So perhaps he would best secure moral authority either by agreeing to a constitutional convention of the sort I suggested last week, or by threatening to abstain on a Tory Queen’s Speech unless it included a bill to repeal the fixed-terms act – which would enable a second election early on in which the governing class could, at least, demonstrate its commitment to secure democratic legitimacy.