Alan Watkins: Cameron looks a winner, but a wary one

The Conservative leader appears on course for an outright election victory, but he's looking to history for guidance in case he falls short
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The Independent Online

Mr Gordon Brown is going on. He has told us so himself. Harold Wilson said the same. He said it at a May Day rally at the Royal Festival Hall on a Sunday in 1969. His words were: "I know what is going on. I am going on." They brought the house down. With two short sentences, he had controverted his enemies in the Cabinet.

The circumstances were that Wilson and Barbara Castle were in trouble with their colleagues in the government and with the party generally over their proposals for trade union reform. In a matter of months, they were compelled to retire hurt. Their enemies were James Callaghan and Roy Jenkins. Wilson and Mrs Castle, however, remained in office until Wilson unexpectedly lost the 1970 election.

Even more unexpectedly, Wilson returned as Prime Minister four years later and Callaghan succeeded him. Jenkins retired to Brussels and subsequently co-founded the Social Democratic Party.

The moral of all this is that Mr Brown is more likely to be thrown out of office by the voters than he is by ministers or by the parliamentary party.

Besides, Callaghan and Jenkins were more formidable rivals to Wilson than any present members of the Cabinet are to Mr Brown. The difference is that, despite the 1967 devaluation and other disasters along the way, an aura of success clung to Wilson. It was he who, in this period, coined or maybe re-used the phrase that Labour was now "the natural party of government".

The usage was not to recur until Mr Tony Blair's seemingly inevitable victories from 1997 to 2005, when the Tories reached a state of hardly mitigated despair. Today it is the Labour Party that is despairing. The Conservatives have not yet reached that pitch of self-confidence which Labour reached in opposition under Mr Blair. But they are moving satisfactorily in that direction.

I see, by the way, that the Conservatives have taken Mr Lynton Crosby on board as an adviser to Mr Boris Johnson's campaign for Mayor of London. He is an Australian pollster and election expert or whatever-it-is who specialises in what are called "dog whistle" messages.

These are slogans, usually on crime and immigration, which are hinted at rather than stated. It all sounds thoroughly sneaky to me. Mr Johnson should have nothing to do with it. Mr Michael Howard likewise took up Mr Crosby for the 2005 campaign, and much good did that do him.

It is the fashion these days for political parties to engage the services of an alleged expert on public opinion, whether from the Antipodes or the United States, and to pay out large sums of money for his or her expertise. I have not bothered to enquire what arrangements, if any, Mr David Cameron has made in this area. But it seems to me that Mr Brown is doing his work for him.

From time to time, the lobby correspondents (a fine body of men and women) report that there will shortly be a "new initiative", indeed, any number of new initiatives, to "re-launch" his premiership and to win a fourth term of Labour government. Usually it is a speech on Britishness, or citizenship, or constitutional reform. He has a horror of the concrete and an inability to come up with an original, or even a second-hand, simile or metaphor.

And what has he been doing in the United States in the course of the week? True, for the first time he spoke more frankly about Zimbabwe than he had done before. But he did not have to go all the way to New York to do that. He did not have to go to Washington because he had seen Mr George Bush last year, and a slightly uncomfortable occasion it had turned out to be.

For this Mr Brown, in an ordinary suit, deserved a certain amount of credit. But Mr Brown gave the impression of trying to remedy a previous error or series of solecisms – of trying to suck up to the President when there was not the slightest need to do anything of the kind.

Even without the Pope, the American press would have been largely uninterested in Mr Brown's progress. The error of the No 10 machine was not to cause confusion because of the Pope's visit – though error it may have been – but to think that an American jaunt would impress the voters at home.

On present evidence, Mr Cameron is heading for an outright majority. The Conservative leader, however, is still cautious. My colleague John Rentoul tells us, in a column in last week's daily Independent, that Mr Cameron is highly interested in the minority government that Labour formed in 1924. This interest does not derive from discussions which Mr Cameron had recently but long ago with his old Oxford tutor, Professor Vernon Bogdanor. The story is quite complicated.

In 1922 the Conservatives withdrew their support from the postwar coalition that had been formed under David Lloyd George. The result was that Lloyd George was thrown out of office, never to regain it, and was succeeded by the Conservative Andrew Bonar Law. After seven months, Bonar Law died and was succeeded, surprisingly, by the virtually unknown Stanley Baldwin. Even more surprisingly, Baldwin proceeded to call an election on the question of tariff reform. The election was held in December 1923 and the result was: Conservatives 258, Labour 191 and Liberals 159.

The Conservatives were understandably furious with Baldwin and, over Christmas and the new year, tried to replace him with a succession of more plausible and famous figures. In those days there were no elections inside the Conservative Party (they began in 1965, apart from Bonar Law's aberrant "confirmation" in 1922). George V persuaded Baldwin to carry on as Prime Minister and to meet Parliament. The King gave his opinion that Labour deserved a chance under the Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald.

The Liberals could have formed an alliance with the Conservatives. Instead, the Liberals brought down the Conservatives, and Labour served until the Liberals brought down the Labour government later in the year because of a blown-up scandal involving the Attorney General.

What Mr Cameron was presumably thinking was that the Conservatives could win fewer seats than Labour and still form a government if they managed to win the support of the Liberal Democrats. This, after all, is what Edward Heath tried to do in 1974 when he unsuccessfully courted Jeremy Thorpe – though in this case, Conservatives and Liberals together would still not have possessed an absolute majority.

In 1929, however, Labour had 288 seats, Conservatives 260 and Liberals 59. Baldwin, by now returned as Prime Minister, did not try to hang on to office but resigned immediately because it was "more honest".

I am sure Mr Brown would do the same if he were confronted by the same circumstances. What happened in 1924 is misleading. If there is a rule, it is that the largest single party has to have the chance to take office. It now seems that it will be Mr Cameron who leads that party.