It is a brave man who predicts an election result two and a half years away from polling day, but that it what Paul Goodman has done in today’s Sunday Telegraph . Paul is a shrewd observer and one of my favourite pundits. He may have been a loss to the Commons, but he is a must read as a commentator. He reckons the Tories haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance of winning and he predicts a Miliband led government. On the face of it, it’s not a risky call. This year has been little short of a disaster for the Conservatives. They appear out of touch, incompetent and without any sort of direction or strategy. Despite some encouraging inflation and employment figures, growth is weak and manufacturing lingers in the doldrums. Borrowing continues to rise way beyond the levels George Osborne originally forecast.
In addition, the majority of cabinet ministers seem to have been taken prisoner by their civil servants and have forgotten that they are party politicians with a message to sell. Several seem to have forgotten that they are even Conservatives. And then there are the Liberal Democrats, seemingly doing everything they can to destabilise the coalition in a desperate attempt to regain an identity. Yes, you Vince Cable.
But is it really so bleak as Paul Goodman would have us believe? In the short term yes. But a lot can happen in 30 months, and while David Cameron would be very wise not to rely on a Macmillan-esque upturn in ‘events’ things are still at least partially within his control. But he needs to rediscover the sure political touch which was so evident in his first year in power, but which vanished in 2012.
Ed Miliband had a very good 2012 but he and his colleagues still remain an asset for the Conservatives. Ed Balls has developed into a formidable politician in many ways, but as long as he stays Shadow Chancellor the Tory message of “Would you want to let them do it over again?” remains a very powerful one. Ed Miliband’s political strategy in 2013 will go a long way to deciding whether Paul Goodman’s prediction comes true.
Psephologically it is easy to put the case for the Goodman scenario. The death of the boundary changes make it even more difficult for the Tories to win outright. But we are also in a very new electoral game. Depending on how the LibDem vote disintegrates, the Tories could win 20 or 30 extra seats in the south of England without even trying. In seats in the south west, Labour may gain from extra LibDem votes, but it will generally be the Conservatives who gain the seats.This could make up for the loss of the 20-30 seats boundary changes would have given the Tories.
Of course, these gains could all be negated by the UKIP effect. If UKIP win the 2014 European elections (as I currently expect them to do) who knows what might then happen. It would be a foolish commentator who predicted they would actually win any parliamentary seats in 2015, but they could certainly stop the Tories winning a couple of dozen or more. Michael Fabricant recognised this and put together a paper sugggesting some sort of pact with UKIP. What he failed to recognise is that this would necessitate a change of Tory leader. Nigel Farage would never do a deal with Cameron. He dislikes him. He doesn’t trust him, and it’s difficult to see what would be in it for him and his party.
I do not think UKIP could ever be bought off, so there is little point in trying. To develop a whole political strategy around neutering UKIP would be bound to end in failure. No, far better to render them an irrelevance. How does Cameron do that? By legislating for a referendum in advance of the election. Only in that way will Tory-UKIP switchers ever be convinced that such a referendum will actually happen. And even then, they wouldn’t be 1100% sure.
David Cameron’s big European speech has been hyped up so much that it needs to have a very big announcement contained in it. I don’t think just announcing some sort of woolly referendum on renegotiated terms will cut it with that 5% of voters for whom this issue is more important than almost any other.
If I had to put money now on the result of the next election, I’d go along with Paul Goodman and agree that Labour will win. But I am not as sure as he is that this is an inevitable outcome. David Cameron has to prove that there is a lot of political life left in him yet. The next twelve months will go a long way to showing whether that is the case.