All three parties’ worst nightmare – winning the next election: my ‘what happens’ next predictions…

by Stephen Tall on September 19, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here last week – but I forgot to post it here too. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

Forget trying to forecast the 2015 general election. We already know what will happen then. What matters now to the parties is thinking ahead to what happens afterwards.

When I say we know about the 2015 election already, I don’t actually mean I know who wins. How could I? But it can be pinned down to one of three likely outcomes. There will be either (1) a Conservative minority / small-majority government or (2) a Labour minority / small-majority government or (3) some form of coalition involving the Lib Dems and either Conservatives or Labour.

That’s pretty obvious, you might say: it leaves more or less everything up for grabs. And you’d be quite right. So why am I more interested in what happens after 2015 when my election forecast is about as useful as saying there’s a 50% chance of rain?

Here’s why: there’s not an awful lot that the politicians can do at this stage to alter the fundamentals of the next election. For sure, they will of course continue to campaign: try and pull policy rabbits out of hats, gear up for televised leaders’ debates (that may or may not happen), publish manifestos few will read, pound pavements and deliver leaflets to weary voters. These activities will make some difference. And as these marginal gains could, seat by seat, shift the result — from enforced coalition to viable minority rule, or from viable minority rule to plausible majority rule — it makes sense for the parties to do what they can to shift the needle in their direction.

But, with just over six months til the election, there are unlikely to be game-changers (with the possible exception of a Scottish Yes vote, but I don’t expect that to happen). The leaders are all known quantities — David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have led their respective parties for nine, seven and four years — as are their parties’ positions on the big issues. The election cake is baked, it’s just awaiting the voters to put the icing on top.

It’s sometimes said this will be the first election since 1992 when the result is utterly unpredictable. This is only half-true. (And even then only if we over-look the fact that in 1997 few could quite bring themselves to believe the opinion polls that pointed to a Labour landslide: most expected a much tighter finish.)

There is one outcome most predict with near-certainty: that neither Labour nor the Conservatives will win a convincing majority. And it is this fact which means canny politicians need to start thinking ahead to the election after next, and working back from what they hope to achieve then in order to decide what they should do next. Or ‘have a strategy’ as it’s often known.

Let’s have a canter through the three possible 2015 outcomes to see what they mean for what follows after:

(1) A Conservative minority / small-majority government.

This is Cameron’s best hope and worst nightmare simultaneously. Winning, or almost winning, would be regarded as a triumph given the years of austerity; just as it was when John Major beat the odds in 1992 against the backdrop of recession. And yet, as then, it’s hard to see how the Prime Minister could hope to lead his party afterwards.

The December 2017 deadline of an in/out EU referendum would start ticking immediately. A substantial minority of Tory MPs and members now support total withdrawal, and they favour it with real fervour. Douglas Carswell’s defection to Ukip is simply a taster of the turmoil that awaits any attempt by Cameron to gloss minor concessions from our European partners as anything like enough. Yet Cameron no more wants to be remembered as the man who accidentally led the UK out of the EU than he does as the man who accidentally un-United the Kingdom. Cameron has tried and failed throughout his leadership to tame his feral backbenchers. He can continue to do so after 2015, but he must know it’s a forlorn task which will leave him unable to achieve anything of real note in government.

What should Cameron do? Stop trying pacify the unpacifiable, and instead lead a fight-back for the centrist, mainstream, pragmatic Toryism he believes in and which saw John Major win the biggest Conservative vote in history.

(2) A Labour minority / small-majority government

The polls say this is still the most likely outcome; though the electoral models which factor in the tendency of oppositions to cede votes to governing parties in the final year say not. If it happens, it will be a tribute of sorts to Labour’s 35% strategy: the belief/hope that the party can win by adding to its 29% vote last time 6% of 2010 Lib Dem voters who’ve since switched to backing them. There has been little attempt to win over the voters of Clacton (lost to the Tories in 2005); far more to wooing Cambridge (lost to the Lib Dems in 2005). What was Ed Miliband’s first pledge? A promise to reduce tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 a year, a policy which does nothing at all to help students from the poorest backgrounds but which may play well with the better off middle-classes.

But the strategy may well work: according to Lord Ashcroft’s polling, Labour is besting the Tories in the seats that matter most: the battleground marginals. And then what? Well, then there will follow five years’ disappointment for Labour’s supporters. Austerity will continue, at least if Ed Balls is to stick to his deficit reduction plans. Only half the spending cuts have so far been implemented; the second half are bound to be more painful. No more easy pinning the blame on the ‘ConDems’, Labour will have to take some actual responsibility for the state of the economy. Having spent four years lulling their voters into believing all will be made better simply by evicting Cameron, Clegg and Osborne from power, Labour will find itself assaulted on all fronts.

The Tories, united in opposition behind a Better-Off-Out leader; Ukip, appealing to ‘left behind’ voters in Labour’s run-down heartlands; the Lib Dems and Greens, vying to win back the urban professionals — all will harry Ed Miliband, vulnerable to revolts on his own side from Unite-sponsored hard-left MPs and those fearing for their own seats. How will a Miliband-led Government cope with all this? Simple: it won’t.

What should Miliband do? Stop pretending to his liberal/left base that voting Labour will wave a magic wand that makes austerity disappear, and start to reclaim the Blairite mantle of sound finances and smarter public services.

(3) Some form of coalition involving the Lib Dems and either Conservatives or Labour.

A hung parliament may be the most likely result of the 2015 election, but a coalition seems the least likely outcome. Another Lib-Con alliance? Neither party is likely to wear it. A Lib-Lab pact? Possible (and there’s plenty of policy overlap) but Labour’s visceral loathing of my party makes it hard to imagine.

And then there’s Nick Clegg. As I’ve written before, he is now an obstacle to the Lib Dems continuing in government: unable to sell a deal with the Tories to his party (who wouldn’t trust him with another five years in bed with the Blue Peril), unable to sell a deal with Labour to the public (who wouldn’t trust him to spend five years un-doing with the Red Peril what he’d done in his first five years). His head may be the price of any coalition. But how can a coalition be formed when the party is leaderless?

Far more likely, the party will want to return to opposition, lick its wounds and work out what lessons need to be learned from its first taste of modern Coalition Government. A ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the largest minority party — an option I’ve previously dismissed as being the worst of all possible worlds: responsibility without power — will probably end up being the only realistic way in which the Lib Dems can exercise any power at all.

There you have it: my ‘what happens next’ for the three possible 2015 outcomes. If the Tories win, they’ll tear themselves apart. If Labour wins, they’ll be torn apart by others. If neither wins, the Lib Dems will be in no position to pick up the torn apart pieces.

It’s going to be a bumpy ride.