Assurances over the summer that David Cameron was well on the way to healing relations with some of his backbenchers (via a combination of Number Ten BBQs, economic recovery and the PM’s support for the EU Referendum Bill) look a little optimistic in the light of last month’sCommons rebellion on launching military strikes on Syria.
Clearly, there were reasoned objections to taking part in any mission against Assad on the part of those who voted against their own government. But a look at the list of those who did so reveals that many of them had form. Few, then, would bet against some of the same people deciding to give Cameron another bloody nose and forcing him into future climb-downs on other issues. Obvious possibilities here include reforms to the planning system or HS2, both of which touch a sore nerve even with backbenchers more favourably inclined to their party leader.
On the other hand, while Syria may have been a humiliation, it was by no means the PR disaster that many anticipated. Partly due to Cameron more or less gracefully accepting defeat and thereby appearing to have listened to the great British public (who are clearly not up for going to war on this issue) and party because of the Tories’ effective media operation against Ed Miliband’s supposed perfidy and indecision, the Prime Minister and his party actually emerged relatively unscathed from the affair. Indeed, a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times published on 8 September suggested 41% think Cameron responded well, with only 27% thinking the same about Miliband.
In fact, on virtually every measure that counts, the Prime Minister remains not just an asset to the Tories (in the sense of being more popular than his party) but way ahead of the Leader of the Opposition. Of course, many observers recall that such a gap did not prevent Mrs Thatcher from beating Jim Callaghan back in 1979 or Ted Heath from doing the same to Harold Wilson in 1970. But this is to forget that – before the polls began to narrow in the government’s favour as election day approached – the Opposition had in both cases been recording leads that were much bigger than Labour has achieved since 2010.
This is not to say that the Conservatives are on course for an overall majority at the next election; but there remains at least a reasonable chance that they will emerge as the largest single party, giving Cameron first go at forming another government.
To achieve that goal, the Tories are clearly sticking to an obvious but possibly very effective strategy, namely convincing people of three things. The first is that, owing to their tough love, the economy is on the up and that to allow Labour back in would be a huge risk. The second is that Labour is led by a guy who’s supposedly not up to the job, in hock to the unions, weak on welfare and immigration, surrounded by many of the same people who allegedly made such a mess of things in the first place, and, after his conference promise to freeze utility bills and grab land to build houses, a seventies-style left-winger. The third is that fears about what a Tory government would mean for schools, hospitals, pensions and the police have not in fact come to pass.
On the economy, the main challenge (one taken up a recent speech by George Osborne) is to convince people that the recovery they are hearing so much about these days is actually real – something they can feel, touch and taste – which is why the Tories know they cannot allow Labour to make the running on the cost of living. Economic pessimism is falling and optimism is rising, opinion polls suggest, but real wages – often a crucial indicator when it comes to electoral success – are not. There is little the government can or is willing to do about this: wage rises mean extra costs for businesses only just beginning to get going again; the utility companies appear to be untouchable (unless, that is, Miliband’s promises prove so popular they provoke a Tory counter-offer); and there is – to a prudent Chancellor anyway – limited scope for tax cuts. In short, it may be that the Conservatives have to rely on their rhetoric to some extent trumping reality – one reason why, inevitably, they will be doing as much, à la 1992, to undermine their opponents as trumpet their own record.
On Miliband and Labour, the Tories seem, with a little help from their supporters in the media, to have won the battle of perceptions, even if those perceptions do shift a little in the light of the Opposition’s successful conference. In the longer-term, even if Ed does manage to win some sort of symbolic victory over union leaders, there is no guarantee that it will resonate with the public as much as some Labour supporters hope. And anyway there is no way that such a victory will somehow shame the Conservatives into making less use than they otherwise would do of the election war chest they have amassed, thereby rendering any shortfall in union funding even more damaging. On the other hand, all polling suggests that the six or so percentage points’ worth of erstwhile Lib Dems that Labour has gained since 2010 is going nowhere, especially perhaps after the vote on Syria. That makes it difficult to see, given how stacked the electoral system is against him, where Cameron is going to get the extra five or so additional percentage points he needs at minimum to form a Tory majority government.
Retaining voters’ trust on public services could also prove trickier than many Tories assume. Most problematic in this respect are schools (in particular the pressure on primary pupil numbers) and hospitals (in particular the pressure on A&E this winter). Both issues can be used to cast doubt not just on the Tories’ commitment to publicly-provided education and health but, just as damagingly, their competence too. The announcement of extra funding for A&E departments and the extension of free school meals may help, but they won’t be silver bullets.
That said, the Conservative Party can claim to have upped its game when it comes to communications. Lynton Crosby has clearly helped simplify the message. Jim Messina may help too. And making Graeme Wilson, the deputy political editor at The Sun, Cameron’s Press Secretary might also be a smart move. Sharpening up the campaigning and communications operation, however, might not entirely make up for lack of boots on the ground at the election, particularly if it proves to be a very close contest. Although Labour’s trade union troubles (and the Tories’ cash reserves) may eventually redress the balance, the marginals look…well…marginal.
And then there is UKIP. His party conference may have been derailed by Geoffrey Bloom’s remarks about sluts, but Farage is likely to come roaring back at the Europeans, and still stands a reasonable chance of finishing first. The crucial question, then, is whether Cameron can then keep him out of any television election debates. If he can’t, they may not take place at all. If he can, the Tories may still not recover the five or so percentage points’ worth of former supporters who have succumbed to Nigel’s charms. If most of them remain under his spell, and if those previous non-voters and first-timers who currently claim they would vote UKIP do the same, then the Tories’ worst fears may be confirmed. Trying to counter UKIP by copying its policies, however, may well be a fool’s errand, running the risk of losing as many voters in the centre as it attracts on the right.
The Tories, then, have reasons to be cheerful but no room for complacency.