Thursday, 21 April 2011

Is David Cameron the new Stanley Baldwin?

It's easy to deride David Cameron sometimes. The touchiness about never having won an election in his own right. The uncomfortable relationship with his 'posh' background. The failure to read his briefs. Already having been swallowed up by the foreign policy obsessions that normally dog Prime Ministers in their second and third terms. Well, the list goes on and on. The intrusion of the media can reduce all party leaders to absurdity - as with the recent photographs of the Prime Minister waiting for an Ryanair flight. 'Just who the hell do you think you are kidding?' seems not to be a thought process that goes through the head of anyone at No. 10 or Conservative HQ.

But consider the strategy, not the tactics.

And the history.

When David Cameron was elected to lead the Conservative Party, they were in a parlous position indeed. They'd lost three elections in a row - very badly. Money wasn't exactly flowing like water. Organisationally and intellectually, the party hardly existed west of Swindon or north of North Yorkshire - and then only in isolated pockets. They were derided, on their own side, as the 'nasty party'. New Labour's ideas - tax credits, 'liberal interventionism', higher spending on core state services - appeared to carry all before them.

Now Cameron's party is in government, and they look likely to be there for some time to come. Granted, the Conservative Party's electoral position is still far from strong. Just a tiny swing would be required to see Labour back as the largest party - welcomed with open arms to a coalition with more left-leaning Liberal Democrats than control the party today. Prime Minister Ed Miliband is not such a fantasy as it appears.

That's why the upcoming elections are so important. A 'no' to the Alternative Vote form of electing the House of Commons is increasingly likely. The 'yes' campaign is now so behind it's unlikely to be able to catch up. And the electoral battlefield in Scotland looks increasingly full of the Scottish National Party's troops and tactics. So a Labour victory in Edinburgh on May 5 now seems pretty unlikely - a shocking conclusion given that they led the SNP by more than ten points early this year. Both these outcomes will immeasurably strengthen the Prime Minister, and justify his gambles to allow a referendum on AV and to accept and indeed deepen New Labour's devolutionist settlement in the United Kingdom's nations and regions. Nick Clegg will return to the Cabinet greatly chastened and weakened, less able than ever to prevent the Conservatives enacting their own agenda, and prevented from walking out by the electoral oblivion his team face under First Past the Post. An SNP victory in Scotland will prevent Labour from presenting any victory there as a 'verdict on cuts' - and just as importantly, head off any rapprochement or even Holyrood coalition with the Lib Dems.

So the most likely person to be chuckling to themselves on Friday May 6? Despite the likely loss of hundreds of council seats across England, it'll be David Cameron.

Without AV or a Labour administration in Edinburgh, he'll be freer than ever - and will dominate the political landscape for pretty much as long as he likes. For the inevitable outcome of the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Act, without the AV triggered by a 'yes' vote in May, will be to push the Conservatives closer to an overall majority in the Commons without any movement of votes towards them at all. This is because it 'equalises' and redistributes Commons seats more neatly on the basis of population. The Tories would have won 294 seats under the new constituency boundaries in 2010 - just six short of being able to govern on their own. Labour would have gone further backwards, to about 231 seats, but the Liberal Democrats would have been hit hardest as a proportion of the seats they already hold. They will also lose many of their seats in the south and west to the Tories - easily pushing David Cameron over the finishing line of an absolute majority on no more than 36 per cent of the vote.

The Prime Minister will then be in a position to (a) replace a nominal coalition with a purely Conservative government, (b) use his previous moderation to pose as the champion of 'the nation', particularly England, and lastly (c) say that he has secured a (rather anaemic) economic recovery by working across party lines. He can, in short, act as a latter-day Stanley Baldwin (above) - the man who dominated inter-war British politics by arguing that he and his party represented the country and its instincts themselves, and who was able to point to the financial crisis of 1929-31 and Labour's 1931 implosion to prove it. Witness Cameron's shared platform the other day with 'patriotic' and right-wing Labourite John Reid, and his appeal to the 'gut' rather than reasoned argument over AV. Cameron's aim then will be to govern for the best part of three whole terms and beat Tony Blair's ten years in power.

The prize is within his grasp. Can he seize it?