Tories heading for victory? Don’t you believe it

The economy will still be fragile by 2015, and Labour have cards to play

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior SQL DBA (SQL Server 2012, T-SQL, SSIS) London - Finance

£30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior SQL DBA...

C# Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, MVC-4, HTML5) London

£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Web Develop...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Ellen E Jones
Scientists have discovered the perfect cheese for pizzas (it's mozzarella)  

Life of pie: Hard cheese for academics

Simmy Richman
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution