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Why this could be David Cameron's last summer in politics

Once the Scottish referendum is over, the party leaders face a battle for which none seems fully prepared

2 August 2014

9:00 AM

2 August 2014

9:00 AM

At this time of year, whenever you see a British politician looking particularly busy, you can take it as a sign that they are about to go off on holiday. In this puritanical age, nearly all political leaders are afraid to be seen enjoying themselves, and few dare take a break without making sure we all know they’ve earned it. Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg are splitting their summer holidays in two this year to avoid being accused of slacking off.

Any sensible politician should make sure of a proper rest this summer. It’s their last chance before the general election campaign begins. For the rest of this month the Scottish referendum will rightly dominate national debate. But if the Scots vote no on 18 September, as the polls suggest, the party conferences that follow will mark the beginning of the 2015 campaign season.

A Scottish no vote cannot be taken for granted, however. The British Election Survey calculates that if those telling pollsters they are undecided continue to divide as they are currently doing, then the no campaign will win by 53.6 per cent to 44.6 per cent. That is too close for comfort. And it confirms Alistair Darling’s position as the Admiral Jellicoe of this referendum: the only man on either side who can lose the campaign in an afternoon — or, to be more accurate, in a couple of hours on Tuesday evening, when he will take part in a live TV debate against Alex Salmond.

Darling has had an unenviable task as the leader of the cross-party unionist campaign, Better Together. He has had to put up with off-the-record Tory criticism, the usual Scottish Labour intrigues — and Gordon Brown, who is making the post-Downing Street Ted Heath look like a ray of sunshine. Labour sources says that Brown is particularly irritated by the thought that his former subordinate might get the credit for saving both the financial system and the Union, two achievements that he is desperately keen to claim as his own. And even now, some in Cameron’s circle are nervous about how Darling will fare in the STV debate. It will be Salmond’s last, best chance to push the yes campaign towards an improbable victory.

If Darling wants to know what not to do, he should watch the debate that Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael had with Salmond’s deputy Nicola Sturgeon after the publication of the Scottish government’s independence white paper. Carmichael assumed the facts would speak for themselves: they didn’t.

Let us assume, though, that Darling survives his Jutland and the no camp wins in September. There will be no ignoring then how close we are to a general election. Even Cameron, famed for his ability to relax, will struggle not to think about the coming campaign while he’s on holiday. He’ll know that this could be his last summer as Prime Minister.

Next May, two years before his 50th birthday, his political career could be over. He doesn’t have the temperament to retreat to his own Colombey-les-deux-Églises after losing and wait for another opening; and in any case, he knows that his party wouldn’t have him back after a defeat.

Naturally, therefore, he is determined to win. The brutal treatment meted out to so many of his friends during the reshuffle was proof of that. And he remains in a position to win, particularly if winning is defined simply as him remaining Prime Minister. But given the unfavourable constituency boundaries, the relative unity of the left, and the potential split on the right caused by Ukip, the Tories are like a cricket team who have conceded a large first-innings deficit. The score in the opinion polls might look reasonable enough at first glance, but the opposition are in a far better position once you consider the runs already on the board.

This means that Cameron can’t afford to drop any more catches. He has to cut out the lapses of concentration that get him into trouble. As one Tory grandee is fond of remarking, ‘I have never known a Prime Minister more adept at getting out of scrapes. But I have never known a Prime Minister who got into so many scrapes.’

For now, the drops continue. In the reshuffle, Cameron lazily failed to make the new leader of the House of Lords, Tina Stowell, a full member of the Cabinet. The result was predictable outrage and a vote against the government in the upper house. Peers, of course, don’t take part in general elections, and it’s unlikely that anyone else will change their vote on the basis of that particular mistake. But the lords are now looking for further ways to embarrass the Prime Minister.

This mess is symptomatic of the problems that remain with Cameron’s Downing Street operation. One senior figure who has worked with several prime ministers says that, while Cameron has improved on the job and is now a fine PM, No. 10 remains worryingly chaotic, with a very limited capacity for long-term thinking.

For these and other reasons, it is easy to be grim about the Tories’ prospects. But it is just as easy to come up with explanations as to why Labour will not win. The party has yet to regain economic credibility. Even after four years of coalition government, more people blame Labour for the cuts than anyone else. And Ed Miliband still trails Cameron on leadership questions by a potentially fatal margin. His speech last week trying to redefine political leadership was an admission that he can’t win the debate as it is currently constructed.

Normally, when both main parties have problems, the Liberal Democrats benefit. Not this time. If they lose a third of their parliamentary seats, the leadership will consider that an outstanding result — indeed, a vindication of the decisions that they’ve taken. The only British political party that can be sure of having a better election in 2015 than in 2010 is Ukip, and even they seem less confident than they might: by holding on for so long before announcing which seat he’ll stand for, Nigel Farage risks wasting his party’s best chance yet to reach the Commons.

But somebody has to win in 2015. One task for whoever does will be to preside over a period of national reconciliation following the Scottish referendum. If there is to be more devolution to Holyrood, as all the unionist parties have promised, then the UK as a whole will need a new constitutional settlement. Otherwise the Union could end up in danger again, this time from English resentment.

This question won’t feature much in the 2015 campaign, but it will take up a lot of the time of whoever finally manages to win.

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