Michael Brown: It's the Tories who need PR now, Mr Cameron

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The Independent Online

The attempt to find a new consensual approach to British politics, which has been the early hallmark of David Cameron's leadership, has yielded its first beneficial results in the recent clutch of opinion polls. YouGov, ICM and our own poll in yesterday's Independent have established, among the pollsters, a general consensus that the Tories are now back in the political game and are registering a small, but consistent and discernible, lead over Labour. The force is clearly with Mr Cameron in a way that eluded William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. One swallow does not make a summer, but three polls in a week do make an excellent first Christmas present for the new Leader of the Opposition.

It is early days and the temptation to misread a honeymoon bounce in the polls for something more permanent must be resisted. Pollsters look for a continuous trend before arriving at their conclusions. But MPs and commentators look for the extent to which a new phenomenon creates panic across the other political parties. Such a panic overtook Labour when Margaret Thatcher was elected - even before the first opinion polls were published. And every Tory in a vulnerable seat (such as mine in Cleethorpes) knew, in July 1994, even before the first opinion poll was published, that Tony Blair was a threat to our individual chances of re-election.

The signs of early panic this time reveal themselves, most obviously, among Liberal Democrats and among supporters of Gordon Brown in the Labour Party. The problems encountered by Charles Kennedy last week came to a head thanks to Mr Cameron's election. And, among the Brownites, the ICM poll findings will cause palpitations. When asked how voters would currently vote, the figures were: Tory 37 per cent, Labour 36 per cent, and Lib Dem 21 per cent. But, in a second question, if Mr Brown were to be Labour leader, the figures were: Tory 41 per cent, Labour 36 per cent, Lib Dem 18 per cent. In other words, 3 per cent of Tory cuckoos who have been living in the Lib Dem nest these past nine years pile into the Cameron Conservatives at the prospect of a Labour Party led by Gordon Brown.

So far, all this is very encouraging for the Tories and Mr Cameron. Until, that is, the percentages of electoral support are translated into seats in a general election. On yesterday's "poll of polls" in this newspaper, even with a Tory lead of just 1 per cent over Labour, according to Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, Labour would still secure 77 more seats than the Tories and be only one short of an overall majority. By comparison, even if Mr Cameron's Tories were to beat a Brown-led Labour Party by a 5 per cent margin - although he would be the largest party - he would still only be in "hung Parliament" territory. The good news for Mr Cameron is it is conceivable to imagine him being prime minister at the next election.

Painful though it must be for Mr Cameron to admit in public, in private he must acknowledge that his chances of leading a stable administration may ultimately depend on his attitude to electoral reform. For all their debates during the final stages of the leadership election, neither he nor David Davis confronted this elephant in the Tory room.

If electoral reform ever materialises it will be as a result of a perverse general election result. The late Robin Cook pointed out on a joint platform I shared with him, organised by The Independent shortly before his untimely death, that the 2005 election result was a lottery in which only 30,000 Labour votes made the difference between a Labour majority of 66 and no majority at all. He made the case that one day self-interest will require even Labour to appreciate that electoral reform will one day be their ally.

But for the Tories, that day of self-interest in favour of electoral reform has already arrived. The Tories need proportional representation rather more than the Lib Dems. Mr Cameron knows that, should he become prime minister, he may need the Lib Dems to support him in the Commons to secure his programme. His recent audacious attempt to woo Lib Dems means that, in his subconscious, he has probably already worked out the likely electoral arithmetic of the current first-past-the-post system.

So Mr Cameron might well reflect over the Christmas recess that there is a strong case for at least referring the subject of electoral reform to Ken Clarke's Commission on Democracy. It used to be heresy for Tories to even contemplate electoral reform, but Mr Cameron has based his case for change on thinking the unthinkable. Now is the time for the Tories to recognise that the true consequences of a meaningful consensus in British politics also means contemplating a reform of the electoral system.