The current political battle is similar to a closely fought tennis match, in which two fragile players take turns to appear doomed. Earlier this year the focus was on David Cameron. Would he face a leadership challenge? What was his purpose as a Prime Minister? Now searching questions are asked of his opponent. Is Ed Miliband up to it? What is Labour’s pitch as the economy improves a little?
As in a tennis match of oscillating fortunes the focus will probably switch again quite soon. Soon the pressure will be on Cameron once more. Then, after an internal Tory crisis, there will be another outbreak of doubt in Labour’s ranks. There will be daily twists and turns in the run-up to the election.
There will also be one overwhelming constant – the broader political context in which the contestants play their strokes. The context matters more than the daily mistakes or triumphs of leaders and their parties. Margaret Thatcher took big risks and made mistakes in the 1980s, but she was always going to win elections because of broader circumstances. The schism in Labour meant that only she could win majorities. She was the leader of a single party on the right while the left had two competing vehicles in the form of Labour and the SDP. She was a very lucky leader. If Neil Kinnock had offered every voter a £10,000 bonus, he would still have lost. In spite of his epic efforts, the context made victory impossible for him.
In terms of context, Cameron is also an unlucky leader. Whatever his leadership skills and the flaws of his opponents, the wider electoral situation is daunting. Unlike Thatcher, who had acres of blissful political space in which to roam, Cameron faces another party on the right targeting his supporters, comparable to Kinnock’s SDP nightmare. As I argued last week, Ukip’s fragility will become a theme after the European elections next summer, if not before. But a party that has commanded such high levels of support will not disappear by the time of the general election. It is much harder for the Conservatives to win a majority when there is another competitor on the same part of the political spectrum taking votes in target seats.
Cameron’s task becomes far more complex because of the enduring strength of the Liberal Democrats in the south of England. One of the most significant political events of the year so far was the Eastleigh by-election. The Liberal Democrats’ victory not only secured Nick Clegg’s leadership until the election, but it also demonstrated that when his party puts the resources in, it is still a force. Or rather it can be formidable in seats the Conservatives need to win. The Liberal Democrats are often slaughtered at by-elections in the north of England, but are evidently alive and kicking in parts of the south. Somehow or other, Cameron needs to find a message that prevents voters on the right from heading off to Ukip while appealing to Lib Dem voters in the south – the people who have in the past regarded his party as too right wing.
In contrast, Ed Miliband is a lucky leader, for all that he might not be feeling fortunate at the moment, not least after being hit by an egg today, and having returned from his holiday to see alarming opinion polls that show a further narrowing of his party’s lead. Nonetheless, the context is close to being a dream one for a Labour leader of the opposition. He faces a coalition of the radical right that has alienated many Liberal Democrat voters. At the same time, some Tories are uneasy because their party is not right wing enough. The economy is fragile and will still be by the time of the next election.
Compare this with the landscape when other leaders sought power. Messrs Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard faced Tony Blair in landslide parliaments in the midst of an economic boom. Cameron was lucky in facing a demoralised, exhausted Gordon Brown but he had a much bigger mountain to climb than Miliband does – needing to overturn Labour’s majority while Nick Clegg was attracting some Tory support. Cameron and George Osborne made some very big mistakes in opposition, simplistically affecting to be New Labour in reverse and then moving to the right of President Bush in their response to the economic crisis. But they are unfairly blamed for failing to win an overall majority in one go. They did quite well considering the context.
Perhaps economic growth will propel Cameron to an overall majority, but I doubt if it will be as simple as that. The economy was growing fast when John Major was slaughtered in 1997, and let us not forget it was growing again in 2010 under Gordon Brown, although Labour’s leadership choose not to remind voters of this fact, an omission that has left the Conservatives free to rewrite recent history.
Of course, Cameron could win, but if he does so it will be against the odds and would show him to be a titanic leader. Conversely, if Labour loses it will have no excuses. Miliband is lucky, but that would make defeat even harder to take for him and his party. As the headlines rage, never forget the bigger picture.