On 19 June 1815, after the battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington declared that ‘nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won’. Two hundred years later, David Cameron or Ed Miliband might feel the same way as they sit in Downing Street. Any elation over victory will be quickly overshadowed by the thought of troubles to come — in all likelihood insurmountable troubles for either man.
Everyone has known for years when this election will take place, with the result that the campaign starting gun has been fired even earlier than usual. Cameron is busy prophesying economic chaos if Labour wins; Miliband is warning that the NHS won’t survive in its current form if the Tories get back in. Nick Clegg, meanwhile, is volunteering to be either the Tories’ heart or Labour’s spine — and stressing that he’s not picky about which. He can’t afford to be. His party could lose half its seats.
As they criss-cross the country, Cameron and Miliband are both spurred on by a fear of failure. Defeat for either of them would almost certainly mark the end of their political career. Cameron’s political life would be over before he was 50. He would be remembered as the man who couldn’t beat Gordon Brown and lost to Ed Miliband. His modernisation programme would be dismissed as an outright failure and his friends and allies would be forced out of positions of influence in the Tory party.
Though losing would be hard for hyper-competitive Cameron, it might be even harder to bear for Miliband. He would have to face up to the fact that he ruptured his relationship with his brother for an unsuccessful stint as leader of the opposition.
But if defeat would be dire for either man, winning would not be much better. Whoever ends up in Downing Street in May will be the weakest prime minister in living memory. They will be forced to implement the most difficult half of the austerity programme with a slim to nonexistent parliamentary majority at a time when traditional party discipline is breaking down in the House of Commons.
The best that either party can hope for is the narrowest of outright victories, even smaller than the 21-seat margin that John Major ground out in 1992. Both Cameron and Miliband face the prospect of governing with very little wriggle room.
If Miliband ends up in No. 10 with a tiny majority, he will still find himself having to impose swingeing spending cuts — something his party is just not prepared for. He can’t simply assume that Labour MPs will support a Labour PM. One of the great myths about the Tony Blair years is the idea that Labour MPs blithely went along with whatever he wanted. They didn’t — but his majorities were so large that he could overcome even sizeable rebellions.
Miliband won’t be so lucky. In Blair’s first term, there were several major revolts. In 1997, 47 Labour MPs voted against government plans to cut lone parent benefits, and another 100 abstained. In 1998, 31 rebelled on plans to introduce tuition fees. In 1999, 53 opposed changes to incapacity benefit. In 2000, 37 tried to block the privatisation of air traffic control. Any comparable rebellion would sink Miliband. To make matters worse for him, he will have to implement policies that are far less appealing to the parliamentary Labour party than the Blairite reforms. Can you really imagine the Campaign Group of Labour MPs voting to continue the public–sector pay freeze?
The danger for Miliband is that he will find himself having to negotiate with his own MPs before he can achieve anything. He will be the hostage of his parliamentary party — and Labour MPs could be particularly jumpy after the election. They are well aware that when established centre-left parties on the continent have presided over austerity, they have created space for the emergence of parties of the radical left.
Miliband would also have to contend with the unions. If a Labour government continued the cuts — and Ed Balls is adamant that it would — then the unions might choose to break their link with the Labour party. Indeed, Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, has already hinted that his union might back the creation of a new Workers’ party if Miliband were to disappoint it. Again, it is worth remembering the Blair years, when two unions — the RMT and the FBU — ended their relationship with Labour.
But the problems that a slim majority would present for Labour pale in comparison to those posed by running a minority or coalition government. If Miliband falls short of an outright victory, the Labour party’s instinctive preference would be to try and ‘do a Wilson’ — form a minority government and then seek a majority in a second election, as the party did in 1974. Shadow cabinet members argue that a period in government could allay two of the electorate’s biggest fears about Labour, that Miliband isn’t up to being prime minister and that the party is bound to wreck the economy again. Privately, they also admit that getting a coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats past their party would be almost impossible.
Running a minority government would be fraught with difficulty, however. The minor parties would all want to extract their pound of flesh. The Scottish Nationalists would be determined to show that they were dragging Labour to the left. When Nicola Sturgeon set out the SNP’s demands for a hung parliament, she was clear that she wanted an end to austerity and no renewal of Trident. But Labour knows that it would be an existential threat to the party in Scotland if it looked like the SNP were leading it by the nose.
Not that David Cameron would find governing any easier. Even if he somehow secures a slim majority, any re-election honey-moon will be short-lived. The ‘bastards’ would be back before summer was out. Tory MPs would immediately start to demand sight of Cameron’s EU renegotiation strategy — after all, the Prime Minister would have only 18 months to win agreement from every other EU capital for his demands. As one Tory minister with an ambiguous relationship with the Prime Minister likes to say, maliciously, ‘David really does deserve to win the next election.’ Some describe a small majority as ‘the scenario that is the most difficult possible for Cameron’.
If Cameron were to set out what powers he actually wanted to bring back from Brussels, many Tory MPs would be disappointed at how short the list was. I have spoken to one normally loyalist cabinet minister who is expecting to campaign for an out vote on the grounds that Cameron is unlikely to change the terms of Britain’s membership sufficiently.
Another potential problem for Cameron will be the many spurned, sacked and slighted Tories who are eager for revenge, determined to scupper him come what may. Talking to a couple before Christmas, I asked how they thought Cameron’s relationship with the party would change if he won a majority. After a brief pause, they both said that he would still be gone within a year. Their prediction might be motivated by malice, but it is revealing: Cameron has lost a section of his party. If he won a small majority, he would be reliant in the House of Commons, night after night, on the support and loyalty of Tories who dislike and distrust him.
When you put this to those who work in Downing Street, they joke that these would be good problems to have — given they only arise in the case of a victory. Oddly, however, the Tories might find it more straightforward to ditch Cameron if they were governing on their own. A senior backbencher observes, ‘In a funny way it would be easier to get rid of a leader when you have a majority. Getting rid of a leader in coalition would be considerably messier.’
One thing that will make Cameron’s position more uncertain will be the return of Boris Johnson to the House of Commons, as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. In this parliament, there has been no credible alternative to Cameron as Tory leader. Boris’s presence will change that.
If the Tories do not win a majority, Cameron will have to decide whether to try to govern as a minority or to form another coalition. Inside Downing Street, time has been spent on calculating the ‘bugger-off number’ — the point at which the Tories could reasonably expect to survive governing on their own. But if Cameron did decide that he needed another coalition, getting it past his party would be more complicated than last time around. He would need to secure, in some form, its formal approval. If he tried to simply push it through, he would be faced with Tory MPs conducting their own vote on the proposed deal.
Hung parliaments are what the Liberal Democrats live for. But another one would throw up some difficult — even existential — questions for Nick Clegg’s party. If they were to hop straight from Cameron’s bed into Miliband’s, they would immediately endanger the seats they had clung on to in the election. But if they were to join the Tories again, they would start to look like a mere subset of their coalition partners. This is why powerful figures in the party believe that they should avoid a coalition after the next election. Yet Clegg’s leadership almost certainly depends on the Liberal Democrats still being in government after May.
The next few months will be the most dramatic in political memory. Ukip and the SNP will attempt to break the mould of British politics. The Tories and Labour will have a substantive argument about how big the British state should be. No one can argue that this election does not matter. But whoever wins will be in a bind from day one, curtailed by the strain of governing in these straitened times and the challenges posed by the fracturing of politics. The truth is that whoever wins the election, Cameron or Miliband, they are highly unlikely to make it through a full five-year term.