Michael Brown: Cameron will regret flirting with Clegg

His New Year message suggests he is scared: he knows he won't sleepwalk to victory

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This is the time of year for party leaders to issue vacuous new year messages and for political commentators to indulge themselves and their readers in a little crystal-ball gazing. Both exercises, hopefully, are forgotten by everyone a day or two later.

But I feel obliged to remind readers of my own dubious skills at reading the political runes. Re-reading my offering of 12 months ago, I noted that David Cameron's stratospheric poll ratings in the summer of 2008 had already narrowed to single figures in the aftermath of the banking crisis. This time last year the Tories had poll leads hovering around 7 per cent. But I concluded that David Cameron would be certain to be Prime Minister in 2010 – words, if I knew then what I know now, I would have rephrased.

I failed, of course, to anticipate the Damian McBride affair. And I did not foresee the subsequent catastrophe of the expenses scandal which sent Gordon Brown scurrying off to YouTube and Speaker Michael Martin into enforced retirement in the House of Lords. Nor did I imagine that Hazel Blears, Jacqui Smith, James Purnell, John Hutton, Margaret Beckett, Caroline Flint and a host of other ministers would depart by "rocking the boat". And if I had known, in advance, of their impending resignations, I would have predicted that they would collectively precipitate the collapse of the Brown premiership.

Yet, ironically, their departure somehow left the SS Gordon Brown safer than ever from a leadership challenge – thanks to Lord Mandelson's lifeboat rescue operation after the disasters of the European and local election results in early June.

The latest polls at the end of 2009 show Mr Cameron and the Tories precisely where they were a year ago – a lead in single figures pointing to a likely general election victory but without an overall majority. So the only safe predictions I will make with certainty are: a) there will be a general election in 2010; and b) by the end of the year, either Mr Cameron or Mr Brown will be Prime Minister.

But already, even as I write that sentence, I can see the opportunity for events as yet unknown to overtake such an apparently blindingly simple statement of the obvious. Let us suppose that the fabled "hung parliament" materialises, with the Tories as the largest party. From what we must call the "Clegg Doctrine", expressed by the Liberal Democrat leader last autumn, it seems that he will use his parliamentary numbers to allow Mr Cameron to form an administration – but without the inclusion of Lib Dems in the Cabinet or any formal coalition.

Mr Clegg will then apparently support the new government in the division lobbies only on an "issue by issue" basis. So Mr Cameron will be forced to frame legislation – and, more crucially, the Budget – in such a way that will attract third-party support. Were he unable to secure the passage of the Queen's speech or a central Tory manifesto commitment, the new Tory Prime Minister would be forced to tell Her Majesty that he no longer commanded a parliamentary majority and would be required to resign.

He could recommend the immediate dissolution of Parliament and a second general election would then take place. But the Queen can refuse another dissolution and summon back to Downing Street the Labour leader – who by that time might not be Mr Brown – if, with the Liberal Democrat votes, there were enough Labour MPs to create an alternative government majority.

Who knows then whether a newly energised Labour Party, fresh from a leadership election, would after a few months back in office, and with Liberal Democrat support, feel strong enough to ask for a dissolution?

But to spare Her Majesty's blushes and a constitutional crisis which, at her age, she can well do without, I suggest it would be in all our interests if Mr Cameron sought to win the election outright. His new year message, issued on Sunday, suggests however that he is a bit scared.

No longer can he sleepwalk his way to victory as his supporters (including me) thought he could when he had a larger poll lead. All the Tory talk is of a "new politics" and recognising "the good intentions of our opponents". But I'm not sure that too many voters will understand the clarity of the Tory message when told that "between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats there is a lot less disagreement than there used to be".

Try telling that to the Conservative candidate in Cheltenham, for whom I spoke a few weeks ago, trying to unseat the Liberal Democrat incumbent in what should be an easy Tory gain. Mark Coote has been working furiously, locally, to point out how hopeless his Liberal Democrat opponents are and how much difference there is between his policies and theirs.

But if there is a hung parliament, Mr Clegg and his band, having waited years for this great moment in the sun, should have every incentive to keep their new-found influence for as long as possible. They would, therefore, be foolish to precipitate a second election which would rob them of their power.

In his message, Mr Cameron has made a New Year resolution to "work harder for a new politics in this country". With luck this will go the way of all resolutions – just like his promise to end "Punch and Judy" politics.

Rather lacking in confidence, the Tory Central Office email sending the Cameron message stated: "Any opinion expressed in this email is not necessarily that of the Party". Too right. If I was a party member I'd be looking for a message to voters that I could distil on the doorstep in fewer than 100 words and that took a parliamentary candidate no more than a minute to deliver. That was the sound advice Margaret Thatcher gave me when making my pitch to voters in Scunthorpe 30 years ago.

Like Mr Cameron I am lacking in confidence and therefore won't predict the outcome of the election. But if readers really press me, I do have a rather large bet on a Tory overall majority of 30.

Perhaps I should have knocked off the zero.

MRBROWN@talktalk.net

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