By now, it will be clear even to David Cameron that he is on course to lose the next general election. The British electoral system always was rigged against the Conservatives, and his hopes for changing that were dashed by Nick Clegg before the summer holidays, when he scuppered Tory plans for boundary reform. All parties are returning to a new reality: the economic recovery has evaporated, and with it the Tories’ chances of winning next time. An unprepared Labour Party is cruising towards power, under a leader who has just held a surprisingly successful party conference. Every bookmaker now agrees: Cameron is heading for a crash.
The Tory party conference, which starts in Birmingham this weekend, ought to be a crisis meeting. How did things get to this stage? Is coalition the problem, or just a convenient excuse? Where is George Osborne’s growth strategy and might this be a good time to produce one? But the Tory conference is not really about the Tory party any more. You can walk around the complex all day without encountering the word ‘Conservative’. This is a festival of government, not of politics. Any Tory party members who want frank and urgent political discussion will be coming to the wrong place.
But there is plenty to discuss. The boundary review would have given the Tories about 20 more seats. When Clegg vetoed it, in vengeance for the Conservatives’ spoiling of his Lords reform, it was an act of sabotage which, ironically, has made the coalition more stable. ‘The glue that binds both of us together now is fear of the electorate,’ says one newly promoted minister. ‘Neither of us wants an election. Cameron will do pretty much anything to stay Prime Minister and give the Lib Dems anything.’ There is a feeling that Cameron’s first loyalty is to the coalition, not the party — and that if the Tories are doomed in 2015, he doesn’t much care.
This is quite untrue. Mr Cameron may well join a long, distinguished list of Tory leaders in not caring much for the activists. But he does very much care about winning elections, and has constructed 10 Downing Street accordingly. He has an opinion pollster, Andrew Cooper, as a chief strategist. The frequency of U-turns is nothing if not testimony to an excessive reverence for public opinion. No other prime minister has asked his chancellor to also act as chief electoral strategist. For many around Cameron, government is party political warfare by other means.
And here lies the paradox. The more the Tories obsess over elections, the worse they appear to be at winning them. Cameron already has the dubious distinction of being the most electorally unsuccessful Tory to make it to No. 10, which in itself bodes ill for 2015. His unlucky streak has not run out. His proposal for city mayors was rejected by almost every city asked. A competent, election-winning No. 10 might have been able to sniff out decent candidates for next month’s police commissioner elections. But the Tories failed and a new generation of Labour placemen look set to sweep the board, ready to denounce Tory cuts.
Recent victories — Boris Johnson’s election and the AV campaign — were due to independent campaign teams who kept well clear of the official Conservative machine. Even Tory donors are wondering (as Lord Ashcroft put it earlier this week) ‘what on earth CCHQ thinks it was doing with my money’. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor are finding themselves being dragged out to have dinner with guests expected to produce £50,000 donations. Not so long ago, they were only called upon to solicit six-figure sums and Andrew Feldman, the party chairman, was left to deal with the small beer. But the Tories are now embarrassingly grateful for any beer they can get.
There is even a shortage of those who work for free. Many Tory MPs report disillusion and absences in their constituency party: the grassroots don’t understand why the Prime Minister feels the need to keep picking fights with them over issues like planning and High Speed Rail. Cameron’s proposals for gay marriage are blamed by one MP for halving the number of volunteers prepared to help post leaflets or knock on doors come election time.
Cameron’s problem has been drift rather than disaster. Just two years ago, his strategy seemed plausible and even radical. Schools and welfare would change, utterly. A dual strategy was adopted by George Osborne: denouncing debt, while quietly feasting on it. At the time, most economists backed him: a recovery was underway, so Osborne could give himself six long years to balance his budget. But when the headwinds strengthened, Osborne decided to hunker down rather than respond with pro-growth policies. Embarrassingly, a Chancellor who defines himself by deficit reduction is now set to enter a 2015 election nursing the biggest deficit in the western world.
This leaves precious little to boast about at this Tory conference. Michael Gove’s free schools are opening, each one a local triumph. But the government’s failure to throw its weight behind the programme has made progress slow. Just 79 of them are now open, whereas an extra 430 schools would need to open each year just to cope with demand. Welfare reform is proceeding apace, but Iain Duncan Smith is at the start of a decade-long project. Quantitative easing has kept the drug of cheap debt flowing, especially to the government. But it is a sorry substitute for growth.
Cameron is hardly devoid of accomplishment. He has put together a coalition in one of the most fractious parliaments in the world. He helped stop genocide in Libya and his education and welfare agenda could yet transform Britain. But voters tend to judge politicians by what they do, not by what they say — and so far, this government has pitifully little to show for itself. The bookmakers who predict Cameron’s demise also have Boris Johnson as the most likely candidate to replace him. The Mayor is circling: he protests he has no prime ministerial ambitions. But he likes to ask himself: if it were me versus Gove fighting to be leader of HM’s Opposition, who would win?
Cameron’s defeat, while horribly likely, is not inevitable. An implosion in the European Union may lead to British withdrawal, in which case all bets are off. Also, Labour’s 10-point lead hardly guarantees victory. Neil Kinnock commanded a 23-point lead and still went on to lose to John Major. Nor is it impossible for the Tories to win more seats with fewer votes: this is precisely what Baroness Thatcher did after her first, tumultuous term in power. Her weapon, in 1983, was the Labour/SDP split. Some senior Tories want to repeat the trick this time, and have a new, Vince Cable-led Lib Dem party steal votes from Miliband just as the SDP stole them from Michael Foot.
Cameron, of course, has escaped from worse scraps. Five years ago, he went to the Blackpool conference where the party was expecting to fight (and lose) an election within weeks. He held his nerve, and scared Gordon Brown into cancelling the election. He specialises in avoiding political death traps, but he also has a gift for stumbling into them in the first place. For Tory party members, it’s all a bit tiring. The Prime Minister is a good and natural leader, when he feels the need to act with urgency. Now would be a rather good time for him to look down, and panic.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 6 October 2012