There’s an intensity to politics this autumn. The government is churning out as many announcements in a week as it used to in a month. Ed Miliband’s staff are striding around the Palace of Westminster as if they have somewhere to be in hurry. The reason for this burst of activity is that all sides know that the next few months might well determine who wins the next election.
Between now and Christmas, we’ll find out if the British economy has been contracting for a year, or is in recovery. If it is the latter, Downing Street hopes that this will give momentum to its push for growth. This autumn also promises to be one of the few remaining productive phases of the coalition: once 2013 is upon us, speculation about Liberal Democrat leadership challenges and the end of the coalition will make it more difficult than ever to get things done. Finally, this autumn is the last chance to push for reforms that will make a difference by 2015.
The Tories in Downing Street seem in an especially driven mood. They are, broadly speaking, happy at how the reshuffle went even if staff diaries have been chock-a-block this week with meetings to soothe the disappointed. Oliver Letwin is said to be particularly pleased that he now has allies for his deregulation efforts and that his old Cambridge contemporary, the new Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, is pushing harder for growth in the rural economy than Caroline Spelman ever did.
No. 10 is confident that the economy will soon be, officially, in recovery. They reckon that this combined with various other initiatives they have planned will give them a way of winning back support both in the parliamentary party and the country.
The next few weeks will contain a string of economic announcements. But among Tory MPs one thing is causing almost as much cheer as these. It is the word that David Cameron told John Hayes, the new Tory minister of state at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, that ‘I want you to deliver a win for our people on wind farms.’ I’m also told that Tory MPs will, according to one influential Cabinet minister, be fed ‘some pretty pink meat’ on Europe in the coming weeks.
But this traditional Tory fare is to be accompanied by attempts to reach out to the kind of voters that Cameronism attracted to the party. Strategists are working on various campaigns to try to reassert Cameron’s party’s commitment to the NHS. I understand that there are plans for a big push to demonstrate that the clinical commissioning groups, the centrepiece of the much misunderstood NHS reforms, are ensuring that more money is being spent where it is needed. There’ll also be a concerted effort to remind voters that the coalition is increasing funding for the NHS.
For George Osborne, support for the NHS is the most important element of Tory modernisation. This means that he will leave the ring-fence around the health budget in place. What could happen, though, is that more things are classified as health spending. Whitehall insiders are waiting to see what approach Jeremy Hunt takes if Osborne repeats to him the suggestion he made to Andrew Lansley that the £1.7 billion cost of implementing the Dilnot Report proposals on social care should be met out of the health budget.
If Downing Street optimism is misplaced, though, there’ll be trouble ahead. The reshuffle strengthened the government. But it has made party management even more difficult. Those ministers who lost their jobs have returned to the Commons to share their grievances and those MPs who were passed over for promotion are no longer so inclined to trust Cameron and Osborne’s judgement.
These feelings might subside in time. But senior backbenchers believe there are currently two active plots against the Prime Minister. I am told by an MP who has been approached by a representative of one group that he doesn’t think their plans are particularly serious or advanced.
What should worry the Cameroons, though, isn’t the small hardcore of MPs who have long been determined to remove the Prime Minister but the disaffected yet sensible element of the party. One MP remarks that now when two of three Tory MPs are gathered together, the subject of the leadership usually comes up. Meanwhile, a normally loyal PPS says that he is giving Cameron nine months to turn things round.
These grumblings will probably come to nothing. But the speculation about Boris Johnson is not helping, and is destabilising to the party. Cameron loyalists might try to be relaxed about the mayor’s posturing: they joke that they don’t mind that the main Cameron alternative isn’t even an MP. Some of Cameron’s allies are sure that Boris is ‘overplaying his hand’. As one puts it, ‘He’s pushed it so far that he’ll soon reach a moment where he’ll have to act or not.’ Boris, though, appears to have created some new category for himself where he can carry on like this without being held to the standards that a normal politician would be.
Ed Miliband’s team are pleased that the press are now seeing almost every development in the Tory party as a sign of anti-Cameronism. Particular amusement is being caused by one new group calling for an end to ‘detoxification’ of the Tory brand.
But Labour still has work to do. Its policy cupboard remains fairly bare and the party is not yet ready for the scrutiny that comes to an alternative government. A recent poll suggesting that a Vince Cable-led Liberal Democrats would take four points off Labour is a potent reminder that Miliband’s poll lead remains soft. By 2015, it could well be being squeezed not only by a Cable-led Liberal Democrat party but by an economic recovery, albeit a mild one. Politics might stop being a referendum on the government and start being a choice between the parties again.
The biggest political event of the next few months, though, will be the autumn statement on 5 December. We will find out then if the Chancellor has been forced to abandon his commitment to make national debt fall by the end of the parliament. More importantly, it is also Osborne’s last best chance to introduce totemic tax changes whose effect would be felt before 2015.
By the end of this autumn’s political season, we’ll be entering the foothills of the next election campaign. The public will be more than halfway to making up their minds about whether they want to keep Cameron on as Prime Minister.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 September 2012