Amid the unusually compelling uncertainty about the political future there is one prediction that can be made with confidence. If the Conservatives return to power next year, there will be a referendum on whether or not the UK should leave the European Union. Already speculation is intense about the outcome of such a referendum and what the result would mean. By contrast, far too little attention is paid to what would happen from the moment David Cameron re-entered Number 10 for a second term. Immediately all hell would break loose.
If the Cameron continues to rule, I predict it would be in another hung parliament, or with the tiniest of majorities. Restive Conservative MPs, obsessive about Europe, would be immensely powerful. They could bring down the Government with a flick of their Eurosceptic fingers.
Cameron and his poor Foreign Secretary - I wonder if William Hague will serve a second term - would travel to different European capitals frantically trying to get what they could from Merkel and co. As Ed Miliband discovered when agonising over what to do in relation to his offer on a referendum, there is no appetite in Europe for a new treaty in the next few years. So Cameron would be seeking change in a vacuum. He would secure some reforms because Merkel and others would do what they could to help, but his mighty MPs would dismiss it all as mere crumbs from the table. Go back for some more! Off they would go again.
The drama would overwhelm all others and could well lead to a schism in the Conservative party. Events would be destabilising for the whole country and a nightmare for Cameron. I cannot see any negotiation with the rest of the EU that keeps the Conservatives together.
Some of the parliamentary occasions connected with the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s were the most dramatic I have witnessed, with John Major at times on the verge of defeat. Major had just won an historic election victory in 1992, winning more votes than Margaret Thatcher had done in her three electoral triumphs. But those Maastricht debates were a tea party compared with what would happen after the 2015 election.
Until now I have regarded it as absurd when commentators argue that it would be better for the future of a party if it were to lose an election. “Don’t vote for us!” seems to be an unlikely campaign slogan. But in this case I think that defeat in a close election would be the best outcome for the Conservatives. Obviously if Miliband was proposing to hold an in/out referendum, the dangers of schism would also apply to the Tories in opposition. But sensibly Miliband does not intend to hold such a recklessly diverting plebiscite. In the absence of a referendum, the Conservatives would have time in opposition to adjust without any internal split.
Instead of a referendum they would hold a leadership contest, one that might finally deliver the party a formidable and experienced leader. One advantage of Cameron’s relatively laid-back leadership style is that some ministers have acquired space to develop politically. They take decisions and are tested by what follows. Under New Labour, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were so dominant that few ministers grew in the same way.
Agree or disagree with them, the likely leadership candidates in a Tory contest in 2015 have become bigger figures in power. George Osborne is almost as dominant across the government as Gordon Brown was as a Chancellor and in Cameron has a more compliant Prime Minister. Although he insists he will not stand I suspect that Michael Gove would be a candidate, responding to internal and media pressure to put his name forward. He too has roamed widely as an Education Secretary, far more so than his Labour predecessors at the Department of Education who followed instructions from Blair’s highly active Number 10.
There would be a female candidate, almost certainly Theresa May, who would have withstood the unpredictable pressures of being Home Secretary for five years, an unusually long time for that position. Probably Boris Johnson would stand too, an election-winning Mayor of London. Even he will have faced one daunting, formative challenge by then, navigating the route full of land mines that is becoming an MP again.
That is a weighty line-up, in marked contrast to recent Tory leadership contests that have been closer to a form of light entertainment. In terms of exposure to the bright lights of the political stage, they are a more tested range of candidates than Labour’s in 2010. The winner might offer leadership of depth, substance, subtlety, flexible conviction and authenticity – all of which are required to widen the Conservatives’ appeal.
The opposite applies to Labour. If it were to lose, the unexpected discipline that followed the 2010 defeat would unravel. The party would be broke financially and without any clear sense of direction. All hell would break loose. But scale of hellishness would be greater for Cameron and co if the Conservatives were to win.