An overwhelming majority of rank-and-file Conservatives wish David Cameron had never taken them into coalition with the Lib Dems back in May 2010. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll stop him doing exactly the same thing after the next election – not if that’s what it takes to keep a Tory Prime Minister in No 10.
In a comprehensive survey of 852 Conservative Party members funded by the McDougall Trust and carried out for us last month by YouGov, we asked “Had you known in May 2010 what you know now about how the Coalition has worked and what it has achieved, which of the following options would you have supported: the coalition with the Lib Dems, a minority Conservative government, or an immediate second general election?”
The answers we got back point not just to mild disaffection but to far-reaching disappointment and discontent with the coalition at the Tory grassroots.
With the benefit of hindsight, Only 33 per cent of grassroots Conservatives say that a Cameron-Clegg government was the right way to go. Some 41 per cent would have preferred a minority Tory government to a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, while a further 24 per cent would rather have seen an immediate second general election called in May 2010. In other words, two thirds of ordinary Tory members, knowing what they know now about how things have worked out, would have preferred David Cameron not to have done the deal he did.
If we dig a little bit further, things look even more depressing for the Prime Minister – at least at first glance.
For one thing, it’s clear that rank and file distaste for coalition isn’t driven by demographics or length of service. There aren’t many youngsters around in the Tory Party – the average age of its members is 59 – but they are no more likely to favour coalition than the old-timers. Instead, the membership’s dislike of the coalition appears to be driven not just by policy concerns but by an underlying feeling that the leadership has no respect for them and that Mr Cameron in particular is too much of a centrist for their taste. Worse still, hardcore activists – the 3 per cent of the membership who work more than 40 hours a month for the Party and who will presumably form the backbone of its ground campaign – are more disaffected than the largely passive majority.
For another, few grassroots members are keen, at least on the face of it, to repeat the coalition experience. We asked them to rank their preferences with regard to the outcome of the next election. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority would like to see an overall Conservative majority, even if very few of them – in fact, only 19 per cent of them – see it as the most likely outcome in 2015.
Given the distinct possibility of another hung parliament, however, it is members’ second preferences that should interest us most. If we look at those, then a minority Tory government is the second choice of 59 per cent of the rank-and-file. Perhaps predictably, it’s a more popular option among those who regret going into coalition than it is among those who don’t. Equally predictably, but even more definitively, only 4 per cent of those who would have preferred Cameron to have avoided jumping into bed with Clegg in 2010 put down a Con-Lib coalition as their second choice for 2015.
What’s more surprising, however, is that even most of those who are keen on the current coalition would turn down the chance to do it all again if there were some other way of holding on to power. A renewal of the current arrangement in 2015 turns out to be the second choice of just 30% of those who are glad that the Party went into coalition back in 2010. Contrast that with the 44% of the self-same group who say a minority government is their second choice.
In fact, if we return to members as a whole, giving coalition another whirl is the second choice of a mere 13 per cent of the Tory grassroots. This makes it not only four times less popular as a second choice than minority government but also slightly less popular (5 percentage points less popular, to be exact) than a coalition with other smaller parties – presumably assorted nationalists, unionists and (who knows?) the odd Ukipper.
On the face of it, then, this presents a serious problem for David Cameron. Unless he hangs onto No 10 in 2015, he is toast – certainly as far as the grassroots are concerned: less than a third of them think he should stay on as leader if the Tories aren’t still in government after the next election. Yet another coalition with Clegg, or whoever succeeds him, could be the only way ensuring that the Conservative Party remains in office.
Fortunately for the Prime Minister, our survey also shows hope is at hand. The chances of him managing to win over his disaffected followers by miraculously transforming himself into a credible social Conservative in the 21 months remaining before the next election are vanishingly small. What he can rely on, however, is their continuing will to power.
Faced with a straight choice between losing office and returning to opposition or else doing another deal with the Lib Dems, it turns out that a comfortable majority of rank-and-file Tories – including over two thirds of those who wish Cameron had never teamed up with Clegg in the first place – would do it all over again. Pragmatism, it seems, trumps ideology in the end.