Until now, I thought David Cameron’s best week in politics was the one that began with the inconclusive result of the general election and ended with him standing beside Nick Clegg in the Downing Street rose garden. The skill with which he outmanoeuvred Gordon Brown reminded me of a comment made by Oliver van Oss, a former beak at Eton, about the Wall Game in Andrew Gimson’s biography of Boris Johnson. ‘It provides the perfect training for later work on boards, committees, royal commissions and governing bodies,’ he said. ‘The unmovable and the irresistible are poised in perfect balance. Nothing is happening and it seems unlikely that anything ever will. Then, for two seconds or so, the situation becomes fluid. If one can take one’s chance — and there may not be another — the day is won. If one miskicks or mistimes or is timid or was not attending, all may be irretrievably lost.’
But the week following last Friday’s royal wedding may turn out to be an even better one for the Old Etonian smoothie. At the time of writing, no opinion polls have been published since the wedding, but it seems likely that the Conservatives will receive at least a minor boost.
Then there was the news about Osama bin Laden. Cameron can’t claim any credit for that, but it is bound to prolong the celebratory public mood.
More important, though, will be the AV referendum and the local election results. A decisive victory for the ‘No’ campaign will be seen as a win for Cameron and a loss for Ed Miliband. It should put a stop to the rumblings of discontent on the Conservative back benches and go some way to repairing the damage caused by Cameron’s failure to win the last election.
Labour will undoubtedly make some gains in the local elections, but the majority will be at the expense of the Lib Dems rather than the Conservatives. Indeed, it’s possible that the Tories may gain control of some local authorities in the southwest. And whatever credit Miliband receives will be more than offset by Labour’s defeat in Scotland. Given that most people were expecting a worse result for the Conservatives and a better one for Labour, Cameron might well be able to spin this as another win.
The big question, then, is whether he and George Osborne will decide to call a snap election. On the plus side, the electorate still seems unconvinced by Ed Miliband, something that may change in due course. For all the talk of cuts, public spending is only set to fall by 0.6 per cent in 2011/12, making this financial year a better time to call an election than next, when it’s due to fall by 1.1 per cent, or the one after that (1.3 per cent). And the Conservatives can more easily afford to fight a general election than Labour — another tactical advantage that may not last.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Cameron’s window of opportunity is closing. The Fixed Term Parliament Bill is currently on its third reading in the House of Lords and once it becomes law the Prime Minister will no longer be able to dissolve Parliament. A general election can only be triggered if two thirds of MPs vote for dissolution or if the government loses a vote of no confidence and an alternative government cannot be formed within 14 days. Nick Clegg may be replaced as leader in the wake of the AV defeat and, if that happens, it’s not inconceivable that the Lib Dem MPs will withdraw from the coalition, vote down the government and throw in their lot with Labour. If Cameron doesn’t dissolve Parliament while he still can, we could be facing the ghastly prospect of Ed Miliband becoming Prime Minister without having to fight a general election.
But, on balance, I don’t think Cameron and Osborne will take the risk. They will want to postpone fighting another election until the boundary changes have gone through at the very earliest, and that’s not due to happen until next year. The prospect of the Lib Dems being able to form a government with Labour are remote and, for that reason, an election would almost certainly be triggered if they withdrew from the coalition after the Parliament Bill has passed. Knowing that, the Lib Dems won’t do it, even under a new leader. Why would Cameron and Osborne risk being defeated this year when they can be reasonably confident of remaining in office until 2015? They’re both enjoying being in office far too much for that.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.