The coalition parties have governed together for more than three years now, but they remain culturally very different beasts. When the Liberal Democrats held an away day last week, it was at a conference centre in Milton Keynes — picked, in the words of one Lib Dem, ‘because there are no distractions there’. The Tories are also conducting a bonding exercise: in the Downing Street garden and the chamber of the House of Commons.
No. 10’s decision to light the barbecue and put out the bunting for Tory MPs is typical of its new-found interest in party management. It had realised that it was in danger of a vote of no confidence through neglect of its MPs, and it is now trying to correct its past errors. Cameron is dispensing patronage in the manner of a medieval monarch. MPs are being made special envoys, vice chairmen and small-business ambassadors at an indecent speed, even before the reshuffle of the government’s junior ranks due in the next few weeks. One aide jokes that you can hardly move in No. 10 for MPs coming through the door. Another archly remarks, ‘They’re so obsessed with party management now that they’re in danger of forgetting about the voters.’
Those close to Cameron hope that Friday’s vote on an EU referendum will build Tory esprit de corps — marching through the lobby with the Prime Minister will remind them that they are all on the same side. The Cameroons are also increasingly hopeful that they can at least get this private member’s bill to the House of Lords. While Labour and the Lib Dem might not be for a referendum, they are not prepared to stand against it: hence their decision to stay away on Friday, leaving the chamber to the Tories.
Nick Clegg has indicated privately to Cameron that he will not oppose a money resolution for the bill — something that would almost certainly have killed it. With Clegg passive, it has a better than 50-50 chance of making it through the Commons.
In No. 10, they know that they need to put some credit in the bank with the parliamentary party before next year’s European elections. The rise of Ukip means that the Tories are likely to come third — for the first time in a nationwide vote since the emergence of the modern party system. However much Tory MPs prepare themselves for this possibility, it will still be immensely destabilising. ‘The backbenchers are going to go into shock,’ says one senior minister close to No. 10.
But for the moment, the European elections are the only cloud on the Cameroon horizon. His team are the most optimistic they’ve been in years. One minister jokes, ‘We’re through panic and we’ll be back to complacency soon enough.’
What has changed? They sense that Labour is being forced to fight on Tory turf. They feel the economy is improving and will be growing visibly by 2015. And they can see Labour’s poll lead shrinking. It now looks like Ed Miliband will be the party leader who endures a difficult conference.
Miliband’s had to accept the coalition’s current spending plans if he was ever to achieve fiscal credibility. But it has left him with several problems. Labour can hardly claim austerity is the problem when it is signed up to it too. What’s more, Miliband and Ed Balls have adopted very different tones since this announcement. The leader’s emphasis is on how the Labour government in 1945 did great things while balancing the books. The shadow chancellor still wants to make the case for more borrowing to kickstart the economy. Their positions are reconcilable — Miliband will accept more borrowing to fund big capital projects — but the difference in language makes Labour look Janus-faced.
Those close to Miliband expect Labour to go into the election matching day-to-day Tory spending plans but with five to seven clear points of difference. One will be scrapping the so-called ‘bedroom tax’.
The outlines of Labour’s next election campaign are just about visible. Miliband’s brains trust believes that, while the economy will be growing by 2015, living standards will not have improved. They’ll tell the voters: ‘Cameron and Osborne say the economy is healing, but your lives are getting harder.’ The party’s focus group suggests that this message resonates.
But Labour is further behind in its election planning than the other two parties. We know who will run the Tory campaign: Lynton Crosby. Tellingly, the Australian strategist was present at a recent policy brainstorming session at Chequers, to ensure that everything slotted into the Tories’ election message about aspiration and the ‘global race’. Election planning is even more intrinsic to Liberal Democrat thinking. Their chief strategist, the South African Ryan Coetzee, is already based in the Deputy Prime Minister’s office. Coetzee has succeeded in making the Lib Dems a disciplined political force. Their planned election message — that they are needed in government because you can’t trust the Tories with society or Labour with the economy — runs through everything they do.
But we still don’t know who will run the Labour campaign. One might expect it to be Tom Watson, the deputy chair and campaign co-ordinator. His campaign against Rupert Murdoch over phone hacking demonstrated that he’s a man who knows how to wage war. But several of those close to Miliband have doubts about his work rate and priorities.
So there’s an increasing expectation that shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, who backed David Miliband for the leadership in 2010, will end up taking charge of the general election effort. Thanks to his close links to the Democrats in the US, Alexander is au fait with all the latest campaign tools and techniques. He would also lend political balance to Miliband’s top team, ensuring that it doesn’t tilt too far left.
But Miliband needs to make these decisions soon. The Tories and the Liberal Democrats are noticeably sharper than Labour at the moment because they know how they want to fight the next election. The danger for Miliband is that as Labour’s poll lead narrows, party discipline begins to break down. Various ex-ministers are already opining about excessive union influence.
Miliband needs to arrive in Brighton for conference in September with a clear blueprint of how, and who, he wants to run the next election campaign. If he doesn’t, he could be in for a rough ride by the seaside.