John Rentoul: Why the Tories are studying the lessons of history – and what they have learnt so far

Cameron cites 1924, when the Conservatives were the largest party but Labour took power
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They are the history boys. David Cameron and George Osborne are keen students of the recent past, perhaps because they are Conservatives, or perhaps because they studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, which is really History with Added Relevance. Whereas Gordon Brown is interested in history for its own sake, being an historian by training, and Tony Blair was interested in historical nuggets if they served the purpose of his argument, the Conservative leadership take a close interest in the lessons of history, because they might have to apply them.

Which is why the speech given by Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, yesterday was surprising. It was a potentially important moment. As he acknowledged, people keep asking, "What are you going to do differently?" Yet, despite promising at the start of his speech "to try to answer" that question, he didn't. Just as Brown is in serious trouble over the abolition of the 10p income tax rate, Osborne held back. He could have set out how the Tories, who will vote against the change next week, would pay for it. Instead he said: "The responsible thing is to wait to see the economic conditions at the time of the election before we can set out our final economic plan for the country." Wait to see? That is not the lesson of history. It is not even the lesson of the past nine months.

In 1994, Labour engaged in a similar piece of mindless opportunism. Blair and Brown opposed putting VAT on domestic fuel, but did not say how they would pay for it. Not our problem, they said, which is what I heard Philip Hammond, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, say on the radio at the weekend.

Labour won a noisy Commons victory in 1994; Kenneth Clarke was forced to put a penny on a litre of petrol instead. But it actually had no lasting effect (except to leave high-carbon gas and electricity lightly taxed). What worked politically was the specific plan for a windfall tax on the utility companies which Labour used to pay for its costed promises in the run-up to the 1997 election. That gave Blair and Brown credibility as an alternative government.

What worked for Osborne last year was his specific plan to tax non-domiciled workers to pay for an inheritance tax cut. The sums didn't add up, as Alistair Darling found out when he tried to implement the policy, but it gave the Tories credibility as an alternative government. Yesterday's chickening-out weakens that credibility.

Which is strange, given how diligently Cameron and Osborne do their homework. One subject in particular, I can report, is of obsessive interest to them. That of hung parliaments. For Gordon Brown, the 1977 Lib-Lab pact was a formative experience. For Cameron and Osborne, who were aged 10 and five at the time, it is history. They have to read about it and discuss it with professors.

One thing the historians tell them is that the old swingometer, which used to swing straight from a Labour majority to a Tory one with only a thin strip of "Uh-oh what happens here?" in between, now has to traverse a vast sector marked "Uncharted territory – phone Vernon Bogdanor".

So Cameron has been in touch with his old tutor at Brasenose College, Oxford, Professor Bogdanor, who is a constitutional historian of distinction. I am not privy to their conversations, but I deduce that they have discussed Lord Stamfordham and the first Labour Government of 1924.

I say this because Cameron has told his advisers that he would be prime minister if Brown had gone for an election in November. He thinks that Labour might have held on if the election had been in October, but that if Brown had called an election when the speculation was at its most fevered, after the Tories at their Blackpool conference started to push the juggernaut back, Labour would have lost its majority. Even if Labour had been the largest party, Cameron says, he would have expected to form a government. He cites the precedent of 1924 when, although the Conservatives were the largest party, Labour under Ramsay MacDonald formed the government.

Recently, I heard Professor Bogdanor speak about the 1924 case at the Hansard Society. He explained that Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative Prime Minister, had met parliament after losing his majority in the 1923 election, and had been defeated in a vote of confidence. Lord Stamfordham, the King's private secretary, then sounded out the party leaders and established that the Liberals would not oppose MacDonald as prime minister of a minority government.

The lesson of this episode, Bogdanor said, was that "a hung parliament is a political problem, not a constitutional one". That, I believe, is the basis of Cameron's confidence that, had Labour fallen short of an overall majority in the 2007 election that never was, Brown would have had to stand down even if he were the leader of the largest party. He believes that the politics of the situation would have required the Liberal Democrats to allow him to form a minority government. I am not sure he is right about that, but this exercise in hypothetical history lights up some important subterranean parts of the changing political landscape.

One is the significance of the change from Sir Menzies to Nick Clegg, even if, as we learnt last week, Clegg was elected only because Chris Huhne's late votes were held up in the Christmas post. As Centre Forum, the Liberal Democrat think tank that gave Gordon Brown his new policy adviser, Jennifer Moses, pointed out last month in a pamphlet about a hung parliament, "no one can predict with certainty which way Clegg and his colleagues might jump – something that could not have been said of the Liberal Democrats under Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy or Sir Menzies Campbell".

Another is the role of the Queen's private secretary. George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, shows a keen interest in the formation of another minority Labour government, in 1974. He has talked to his advisers about the role played by Sir Martin Charteris, the Queen's private secretary, in curtailing Edward Heath's expectation that he would have weeks rather than a weekend to see if he could assemble a majority from the Liberals and other parties.

Well, six months ago, the Queen appointed a new private secretary. Christopher Geidt's Who's Who entry offers an intriguing clue to the background of the man who may be charged with sounding out the party leaders in 2010. For several years, he was seconded from the Foreign Office to the private office of Carl Bildt, the Swedish conservative who was a UN envoy to the Balkans in the late 1990s. Bildt had been Swedish prime minister and is now foreign minister. It is just a coincidence, of course, but a remarkable one, that Bildt's Swedish conservatives are the favourite foreign model for the Cameronians. Born in 1961, Geidt too was only a schoolboy the last time there was a hung parliament in the UK. I wonder what the history boys know about him.

John Rentoul is chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday'