One of the first things that the coalition did on taking office was to announce the date of the next election. This was meant to prevent destablising speculation about when the two parties might split apart and go to the country. It has largely succeeded in doing that. But there has been an unintended side-effect. Knowing the date of the next election has made all the parties far more obsessed with election planning than they normally would be.
When two or three Conservatives are gathered together, attention invariably turns to 2015. David Cameron’s New Year message read, deliberately, like the first part of an election address. In conversation with members of the Cabinet you would think that polling day is six months away, not 29.
This election speculation isn’t all talk, either. The Conservatives have already hired the man they want to run their campaign — the tough Australian strategist Lynton Crosby — and indentified the constituencies they need to win in 2015.
The outlines of the Tory campaign are already visible. One thing that stands out is that it will rely on David Cameron even more than it did at the last election. Some will question the wisdom of this, pointing out that the big billboard posters of him in 2010 backfired badly. Others will wonder what more there is to say about Cameron given that by 2015 he’ll have been leading the party for nearly ten years. But in Downing Street they are unmoved by these arguments. To their minds, the party would be mad not to rely on him given that he polls 18 points ahead of it.
People in the Liberal Democrat constituencies that the Conservatives need to take are going to hear a Cameron-centred message again and again. The emphasis will be that Tory candidates can offer what Liberal Democrat MPs cannot: a vote for them is a vote for Cameron to be returned to No. 10.
At a recent meeting of the Conservative political cabinet, Michael Gove made this argument. Intriguingly, he also implied that the Tories should offer to stand down against any Liberal Democrat prepared to endorse Cameron. However, it is highly unlikely that any Lib Dem will break ranks on this question. They know that doing so would split their party.
It is already apparent how the Lib Dems will respond to this Conservative approach. They’ll claim that without them, this would have been a government of the super-rich for the super-rich. One Lib Dem Cabinet minister told me recently, with visible excitement, that he has a drawer in his desk where he puts every potentially unpopular idea proposed by Conservatives. At the next election, he says, he’s going to take them all out and say to people if it wasn’t for us, you’d all have been fired at will and the rich would have had all the tax cuts. They’ll also argue that, without them, Cameron would have been held hostage by his ‘tea-party’ tendency. They’ll take the most outlandish statements made by Conservative MPs — putting all benefit claimants on food stamps, reintroducing Section 28 and the rest — and claim that Cameron would have been forced into doing this if he was governing with his party alone.
The Conservative leadership worries that this could be a potent tactic. They have already discussed whether Cameron could be hurt during the election campaign by the charge that a majority Conservative government would be reliant on the support of those outside the political mainstream.
But there isn’t much they can do about this problem. The most outré Conservative MPs care little about whether their pronouncements help or hinder their leader; a hard core of them don’t bother to hide their contempt for him. But if Cameron attempted to have these MPs deselected, he would start an internal fight that he might well lose.
What tries to do instead is to show that he can transcend partisan politics. Those around him view his statements on Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough as of paramount importance because they demonstrate that he is more than just a tribal Conservative.
There are those in No. 10 who welcome the gay marriage fight for the same reason. They believe that the sight of Cameron facing down the more socially conservative elements of his party reassures swing voters.
Cameron’s internal critics deride this approach as being straight out of the Tony Blair playbook. But this is actually a far riskier approach for Cameron than it was for Blair. First, Blair’s hold over his party was far stronger than Cameron’s, thanks to the large majorities he won. Second, there wasn’t anywhere for disillusioned supporters to go.
By contrast, there is a right-wing alternative to the Conservatives: Ukip. Its support has tripled since the last election and almost half of the new supporters are former Tory voters. According to polling by Lord Ashcroft, 12 per cent of those who voted Tory in 2010 now intend to vote Ukip. If this number is as high in 2015, it impossible to see how Cameron can win a majority.
But Conservative strategists believe that the Ukip vote can be squeezed. They will emphasise that if you don’t vote Conservative, you’ll get Labour. When those who voted Ukip last time are asked what they would like the result of the next election to be, far more (43 per cent) plump for a Conservative government than a Labour one (31 per cent). More than half of those considering Ukip say they would change their vote to avoid putting Labour back in government.
Those around Ed Miliband dispute the idea that the Conservatives are really that confident about their leader’s appeal, pointing to Tory scepticism about televised leaders’ debates. They also emphasise that Cameron’s popularity is about half what it was when Miliband became Labour leader.
It is true that the Conservative high command is not as contemptuous of Miliband as it once was. His successful conference speech has forced them to take him more seriously. But they still believe that he comes off badly in comparison to Cameron. Privately, they stress that when it comes to the TV debates what they really want is a head-to-head between Cameron and Miliband.
The irony of the Cameroons continuing reliance on Cameron is that it is an admission of failure. If they had genuinely succeeded in changing voters’ perceptions of the party, they wouldn’t have to rely on the leader so much. But that is where they are and the reason why the next campaign will be the most presidential yet.