Looking at the Conservatives in 2007 I think there are two interesting questions, and one observation. To take the questions first, how much of the Tory progress is down to them, and how much have they just benefited from Labour’s misfortune? Secondly, are they doing well enough to be on the road to power next time round?

While most Conservatives are probably pretty happy with the headline figures in the polls at the moment, I think it’s hard to argue they’ve made particular progress in themselves. Headline voting intention figures are a zero sum game, the don’t knows and won’t votes are taken out, and those people who do vote have to vote for somebody, even if it is only the least worst option. Looking at other questions like economic competence, or best Prime Minister, or best party on issues we see the Conservatives pulling level or overtaking Labour, but only by small amounts. In most questions there are huge swathes of respondents who say don’t know. This isn’t necessary a problem for the Conservatives, a vote for them as the least worst option counts just the same as a vote from a committed Conservative come election day, but it does suggest we are seeing them progress because Labour are faltering, rather than because of a great swell of support for the Tories.

The one instance where the Conservatives really did seem to push forward themselves was when they were up against the wall at conference season, then, and for the month that followed, they seemed to control the political agenda and did briefly seem to address what polls asking about perceptions of the Tories and reasons why people are still uncertain about them suggest is their problem: people don’t know what they stand for, people don’t know what they would actually do, and people don’t know who the hell most of them are.

The Tory revival in early October was dramatic – if you look at the graph of voting intention polls on this site you can see the blue line shoot straight up in early October as the party leapt from the low thirties to around 40% and did so almost overnight. Exactly what caused the revival is more interesting, because there are a couple of possibilities. The straightforward one, and one that lots of Conservative commentators immediately jumped upon because they wanted it to be true, is that it was the offer of tax cuts that made people support the Tories. For right-wing Conservatives this explanation was manna from heaven, all that nasty touchy-feely, tie-discarding, windmill-installing wooliness wasn’t necessary after all, all it needed was good old tax cuts. Unfortunately for them this probably didn’t explain the recovery (as has since probably become clear to all), since despite the offer fading from memory and Labour shooting the Tory fox in their budget, the Tory 40% persisted.

A second explanation was that the Tory recovery was due to them correctly addressing what actually was the factor that was holding them back. They gave a consistent message at the party conference, Cameron put across a vision that people understood, the party offered concrete policies like cuts in inheritance tax funded by charges on non-domiciles and George Osborne at least performed capably enough to give the impression that there was a team beyond Cameron himself. They stood for something. That was my own explanation, but unfortunately it too can’t really explain the position fully, since the message had faded, the policies have been superseded, and yet the Tories are still at around 40%.

A third explanation is that the Conservatives did nothing at all, it was all down to Labour’s own mistakes and the Conservatives are the undeserving recipients of Labour’s lost support. This doesn’t really work either, the press did seem to turn against Labour half way through the Tory conference after Brown’s announcement of troop withdrawal on his surprise visit to Basra, but that wasn’t enough to explain the turnaround in the polls. The real Labour disasters: “chicken Saturday”, the funding scandal and the data loss all happened after the reverse in the polls.

What I think actually happened was a mixture. The initial recovery was from the Conservative conference, the offer of clear policies, a good speech by Cameron and some positive coverage, it was a conference bounce that would have subsided. However, it was enough to panic Gordon Brown into not calling an election, a calamity to his public image that gave the Conservatives a real 40% in the polls. In the same way the Conservatives underestimated the boost Labour would get from Brown becoming PM, Labour apparently underestimated the boost Cameron would have got from the Tory conference and it panicked them into not having an election – in my view, if they had gone for it they would have won it.

Still, they didn’t, so are the Conservatives on the road to winning the next one? I am not a fan at all of deterministic sort of views of politics. There is no lead beyond that necessary on polling day that a party in opposition must achieve in order to survive an inevitable drift in support back to an incumbent party. It is not written in stone that governments recover as they head towards the end of a Parliament (if there is, the causality probably works in the other direction…governments call an election because the figures look good, the figures don’t look good because an election is due). In the last two Parliaments Labour did not recover from their poll ratings mid term, rather the trend for Labour since 1997 has been gradually downwards, rather than mid term falls and election time peaks.

Labour may recover before the next election (though as I wrote in the previous post, my personal view is that they will not recover significantly while Brown is Prime Minister), the Conservatives may extend the gap, it may stay much the same. Polls cannot predict the future. All we can look at is whether the sort of lead the Tories have at the moment would be enough. On a perfectly uniform swing, the Conservatives need to be somewhere around 11 points ahead to get an overall majority. In practice many of the polls we saw late last year would also have given the Tories an overall majority, because they also imply lots of seats gained from the Liberal Democrats. In actual fact, I suspect the Tories would get an overall majority on a lower lead than that anyway.

The so-called bias in the electoral system is partly to do with structural things like the time-lag in boundary changes and over-representation in Wales and declining inner-city areas, but it is also largely to do with more variable things like tactical voting. It is hard to imagine that, were support for Labour really to drop to 30% and the Conservatives rise to around 40%, that tactical voting would continue to be largely against the Tories rather than Labour. Equally while uniform swing is a very good predictor of relatively small swings in the marginal seats, it breaks down towards the edges – there is not going to be a swing of 7% to the Tories in Liverpool and Glasgow however well they are doing. There probably isn’t in deepest darkest Surrey where everyone votes Tory anyway either.

The swing Labour achieved in 1997 was by far the largest since 1945, almost twice as large as the second biggest in 1979. Labour’s tally of seats in that election was significantly above that predicted by a uniform swing projection, under extreme circumstances the formula broke down. If the Conservative are to win the next election they too would need a very large swing by historical standards, and I would expect such a dramatic shift in opinion would hide within it shifts in the distribution of votes, of the direction of tactical voting and so on.

Are they on the road to a victory? Well, I already said that I don’t think Brown can recover, so by default – as ever, barring events – the Tories probably are. But it might be as a minority government in a hung Parliament or with a tiny shoestring majority. From there you can imagine all sorts of long term results, it could be a pyrrhic victory with a fractious Tory government collapsing under the pressure of a tiny majority… or it could be a brisk canter towards a second election consolidating a decent majority against a demoralised and disorganised Labour opposition. To get a workable majority there probably needs to be more of a positive appetite for a Conservative government.

The question that I ponder with regard to the Tory party today is whether John Smith would have won in 1997 had he lived, in other words, if Labour hadn’t completed the change of image that took place under Blair in opposition could they still have won? While Cameron has made progress in changing perceptions of the Conservative party, he hasn’t really overhauled it like Blair did. He is probably where John Smith had got to before his death.

I think Labour would have won in 1997 with Smith. They’d probably have won with a baboon wearing a red rosette, given the huge public desire for a change in 1997. Labour’s position now isn’t that bad – we aren’t a level where the Conservatives will win regardless of how awful they are – but do I think it has reached the point where the Conservatives will record some sort of victory by default as long as they don’t blow their chance through infighting, scandal or manifest incompetence. At the last three election they were, to varying degrees, so manifestly toxic that many people simply couldn’t bring themselves to vote Tory however bad Labour were. I think Cameron probably has sufficiently cleansed them to allow them to ride in on the mood for change, even if they haven’t done much to deserve it.

In short, my prediction is that Labour have done enough to lose the election and for the Conservatives to be the largest party. The Conservatives still have a way to go to be confident of a workable majority though, and they still have time to fluff things up if they aren’t careful.

I said at the start there were two questions and an observation. How much of the Tory progress is down to Labour’s misfortune? Most of it. Are they on the road to victory? Of some sort, yes. The observation? We should remember quite how close to disaster they came at the end of September. Prior to the Tory conference people I know within the party expected an election, and expected to lose badly. David Cameron would have been finished, the renewal agenda with him and the Conservative party would have been staring into a very deep, dark abyss indeed. The Conservatives may be in a nice position now, but they came perilously close to destruction. Memento mori.

77 Responses to “New Year round up: The Conservatives”

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  1. Colin – you missed one out, Alec Douglas-Home.

  2. The Tories certainly look as though they’ve lost support, for good, in Scotland, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, and Sheffield. But, there are places where they’ve put on support, relative to the rest of the country, since they were last in power. So, it’s swings and roundabouts.

    I don’t expect the Conservatives to win 43/44% again, but that’s only because nearly 10% of the population will now vote for minor parties.

  3. And the example of Alec Douglas Home should give all the “Brown is doomed” brigade pause for reflection. He was generally recognised as hopelessly lacking in charisma or inspiration – he came at the fag-end of a long period of Tory government, with a very strong feeling that it was time for a change – and he had a vigorous, young new leader (Wilson) against him. Labour was universally expected to win in 1964, yet Wilson only won by the skin of his teeth – a majority of 3.
    Don’t put the Tory flags out too soon!

  4. Alec Douglas Home is usually underrated. He came *so* close to winning, when the Conservatives had been written off.

    As an aside, my mother arrived in this country from Ireland, in time to vote in 1964. She voted Conservative, because she though Home was a gentleman, and Wilson was shifty. How right she was.

  5. I think we are in danger of over-stating some of the swings in opinion.

    If Gordon Brown had called an autumn election, Labour would probably have won with an increased share of the vote compared to 2005, but a slightly reduced majority (below 48).
    It is also perfectly credible that the Tories would have managed a 1 or 2 point lead on the popular vote and there would have been a hung result.
    The Tory advances in May 2007 (and May 2006) make it highly unlikely there would have been a crushing defeat in an autumn 2007 General Election.

    Things have changed since.

    But likewise, a Labour victory still remains a perfectly credible possibility – but I do think it is a diminishing one.

  6. I am amazed by how little credit people here give to Cameron himself. If you just stop and thinl what – politically – he has done in his tenure as lader of the Tory Party, it’s pretty amazing given the stickness of the wicket he was on. The difficulty of being leader of a party still widely hated when he was elected was extreme. Not only has he altered deep-seated prejudices towards the Tories and made them electable, he has also contributed heavily to the ousting of Blair, Kennedy, and Ming Campbell. Plus he was instrumental to diverting the election which would have finished him and maybe his party for some years, through his own media perfromance.

    If the Tories were a strong party, and Tory ideas were popular, Davis would have been the better candidate. But Tories and Tory-sounding policies are not popular, and he had to come from almost nowehere and change people’s perceptions. I cannot believe Davis could have achieved any of the things I’ve outlined above, however solid and robust he was.

    Cameron will win because he has the better image, and he is the nicer man. People won’t see too much further than that- they say they are fed up with spin but they don’t undersdtand policies and have neiether the intellect nor the interest to understand them, and it weill all come down to flippant celebraity politics in the end.

  7. Luke – My point essentially is that for example after 10 years of effectively no debate on tax, there are now real issues over whether higher taxes can deliver effective services – this was Davis’s main thrust, but Cameron has effectively closed off this avenue of attack. This failed in 1997,2001 and 2005, but would have been much effective at the next election. Yes, Cameron’s image is better, but all I am saying is that the Tories last summer and Labour in the Autumn found that image can tarnish extremely rapidly. That’s when you need to have a set of understandable principles and policy – Cameron just doesn’t possess these. To date he has been a very good opposition leader – hit and run raids on the government without any substantive policies of his own on which to be attacked. As the prospect of a Tory government approaches this position can no longer be sustained and this I feel will be the critical time. It’s just far too early to say ‘Cameron will win’.

    Colin – sorry, but whatever their Green paper says Cameron has been going around stating they will oppose hospital closures and announce an end to target culture. This is opportunistic oppoisition and not a coherent strategy. He continually states he wants to give control of public services back to the professionals. It’s interesting how the BMA warned consultants to expect reduced private earnings as a result of falling waiting times – this was how the NHS used to run when the consultants were in charge. Why can’t I see my very well paid GP on Saturday? – I think Cameron’s approach to public services is wrong, and based on PR slogans, not what is best for patients/taxpayers. A slight digression, but I remember seeing my GP in March 1985 with an unpleasant wart on a finger. Six weeks later I received a letter for a hospital appointment 25 miles away in October 1992. That was the NHS without central targets.

    Don’t take this as meaning I support Labour – I just believe we’re all tied up with volatile polls 2 years out from an election without thinking through the underlying politics. My point is that there are yawning open goals for opposition parties to score in right at the heart of government strategy, but Cameron is missing these in order to concentrate on what will be minor issues long term like missing CD’s. This is because he has no philosophical basis, and eventually, possibly before the next election, but maybe after he has won it, this will return to rip the Tories apart.

  8. Colin

    I don’t think the “Smoke and Mirrors” approach can work for the Government any more. Its been going on for too long. The press are all too ready to point out any sleight of hand and even switched on voters are looking for the hidden meaning behind Government policy initiatives.

    Regarding PMQs – I doubt whether PMQs makes much difference to the average voter – It didn’t help Hague who was brilliant at PMQs – But Brown clearly hates doing PMQs and loathes it even more when he is regularly humiliated. You can see it in his face.

    As for Cameron’s direction of attack at PMQs I agree with you in principle but Prime Ministers mostly avoid answering questions if they don’t wish to and that’s why its difficult to be too “forensic”. If the question is too incisive Brown just won’t answer it.

  9. Anthony-
    “Colin – you missed one out, Alec Douglas-Home”

    Yes I did-so GB faces the prospect of being on
    the same page as Sunny Jim AND a Tory Peer!!

    “I am amazed by how little credit people here give to Cameron himself.”

    Nothing I have said should be so construed. If he wins I believe he can become one of Britains greatest Prime Ministers, with an agenda of One Nation Liberal Conservatism, rooted in traditional Tory principles.

    “This is because he ( Cameron)has no philosophical basis,”

    I think you are quite mistaken in this analysis. I believe the very opposite is true.-But to the extent that he has failed to persuade you then he
    clearly has more work to do.

    Re NHS-don’t take my word for it-listen to the professionals:-


    I hear what you say-but hope that Cameron never ever takes his eye off the ball with GB who is a very dangerous politician with a massive ego & desire not to join the list of fag end PM failures.

  10. The fact that the Labour party is finding it increasingly easy to win overall majorities with very small shares of the vote, (such as 35% in 2005), doesn’t necessarily mean that the Conservatives will also be able to do so. It may be that they will always need to win at least 40% in order to win a majority, mainly because they pile up so many votes in the South East in constituencies with large electorates, such as Horsham, Wealden, Chichester, etc.

  11. Actually, Andy, I don’t think that’s the Conservatives’ problem. Despite winning a similar vote share to Labour in 2005, there was no constituency where the Tory vote share exceeded 60%, whereas that was the case in a couple of dozen Labour seats.

    The bigger problem was the degree of anti-Conservative tactical voting that built up from 1992-2001, and only partially unwound in 2005. A significant number of Conservative candidates who won 38%+ of the vote failed to get elected, while hardly any Labour candidates who did so well failed to get elected.

  12. I agree with a lot of Luke’s comments.
    I supported David Davis, as a Tory member (activeley) and still do, but Cameron does deserve a lot of credit for the points you raise.

  13. Ed Balls hints in the Telegraph that the election
    will be in Spring 2009.

    Given his supposed place at the head of the Cavalry Charge for the October Election that wasn’t, what does one make of this?

    I suppose we will have this sort of bluff & double bluff to put up with now until it actually happens.

  14. That’s an interesting point from Colin.
    One would have thought Ed Balls would keep his head down.
    In fact, if I was the PM, I think I’d be toying with the idea of punishing Balls and Ed Milliband for getting me into this mess!

    But seriously, I don’t think we are looking at an election in 2008.

    As a Tory supporter, I’m a little concerned about the May elections, because although we probably will increase our share of the vote above 2004 past the 40-41 of 2007, we may actually lose some seats in these baron Met areas where Labour had a dreadful 2004 result in the immediate aftermath of Iraq.
    (The LDs falling back).

  15. Colin, Re: Balls saying 2009, as Mandy Rice-Davis said “he would say that, wouldn’t he?”

    2009 is pretty much the default date. 2010 is the “hang on to the very last minute in the desparate hope something comes up that will stop us having our arse handed to us on a plate” date, for someone close to Brown to say the election wasn’t likely to be in 2009 would be begging the question of why not.

  16. I agree; if the polls are either good or neutral for Labour in Spring 2009, that’s when the election will be. If things are looking quite bad for Labour – more than about 7-8% behind the polls – they’ll hang on until Spring 2010. In that situation, people will probably say “they’re hanging on to power”, although John Major was in the same position and he managed to hang on for 5 years and then win.

  17. If Cameron decides that a moratorium on any new hospitals / academies / power stations is a good thing he’ll get a lot of votes.

  18. Anthony-thanks-yes that makes sense.

  19. I think Balls has just lived up to his name once again. Heseltine clearly had him bang to rights all those years ago.

    As a Tory I look forward to February / March 2009 when the “will he / won’t he” will be wound up again. And when he doesn’t there will be the County Council Elections in May and the Euros in June. Great Joy

  20. John Major was in the same position and he managed to hang on for 5 years and then win”

    He didn’t.

  21. I think they meant 1992 which was 5 years from 1987 – although not from 1990.

  22. Colin – as for DC’s political philosophy, we need to remember he was a key author of the Tories 2005 manifesto – tax, immigration and Europe – now he claims the party has to change. There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind and being open about it, but it’s the fundamental dishonesty that lies behind DC that will ultimately backfire on him. You also need to be clear about what you have changed, we as yet he hasn’t been.
    I’m an environmental manager for my living, and the point I decided I couldn’t vote for him was when he suddenly found an interest in sustainability. The jolly jape with the bike and the lexus and his sudden desire to fit a micro wind turbine on his house were frankly the worst kind of PR stunt. I hate to be seen blowing GB’s trumpet for him, but how many people know that he has had a solar hot water system on his Dunfermline home for some time now? An infinately better choice of technology, but strangely not as sexy as micro turbines were in 2006, although I note something has gone out of the micro turbine image now we discover they are largely ineffective. Perhaps like DC himself in due course?

  23. “Colin – as for DC’s political philosophy, we need to remember he was a key author of the Tories 2005 manifesto – tax, immigration and Europe.”

    Don’t forget his boss was Michael Howard at the time.

  24. Alec-
    I seem to remember the 2005 Conservative manifesto had a four or five line “summary”. Can’t remember all of them-but they included “Lower Taxes”, “School Discipline” ” Controlled Immigration” ” Cleaner Hospitals”

    Not only are these phrases essentially carried into Conservative ideas today-they feature in Labour plans & policies as well.As I tried to say a while back-at that time Labour had very effectively “silenced” Tory messages because they had smeared the messenger(s) as “Right Wing/Nasty/ blah blah blah.

    Cameron has succesfully removed that gag a) by being a different person to Michael Howard and b) by using different language to express the same message( and significantly by encompassing policies & concerns on social cohesion, environmental matters etc.)
    Meanwhile Brown has helped enormously by deciding to move to the right ( as specifically described in a recent Times cartoon-presumably with the blessing of Mr Murdoch) and emulating Tory ideas.

    So your “charge” that Cameron was “a key author of the 2005 manifesto” now has no meaning & no effect. The rules have changed.
    The answer to your assertion -now-is yes he was-so what?

    Reference Cameron’s domestic wind turbine-I agree entirely with you. It was a pointless piece of shameless gimicry-just like Gordon’s solar panels.( & Maggie for tea!)
    We cannot fill the energy gap which will be opened when the current nuclear power plants are decommissioned,by wind power or solar power-either domestically or industrially.We have to replace/increase the current nuclear capacity -or our CO2 emissions from power generation will rise as the gap is filled with gas-almost all of which will be imported through pipelines laid across countries full of nutcases just waiting to blow them up.

  25. Alec-I missed your reference to your job.
    I share your area of interest if not your job (I’m retired)
    There are some big “environmental” decisions coming up which will test both Brown & Cameron .

    Nuclear Power plant replacement.
    THe Renewable Obligation system review & Onshore vs Offshore Wind.
    Heathrow expansion ( or not!)
    House building-how many & where.

    I wait with interest!

  26. It is probably too early to make a judgement if it is based on the issues of the day which will mostly be forgotten by the time there is an election.

    Isn’t it, historically, just too big a hill to climb in one go for the Conservatives to get a working majority?

    If I remember correctly, there is quite a narrow window in FPTP which results in no overall majority. The LibDems will get around 18-20% because they always do. It’s made up of core support plus tactital voting where they are expected to win or come second.

    I dont think think there will be much change in Scotland even though the SNP government is doing astonishingly well. The Conservatives will do well if they hang on to the seat they have. The SNP won’t take many seats from Labour. Partly this is because of very large majorities in the west. Partly it is because it seems as if there is something not quite right about electing someone to a parliament they want to leave.

    Notwithstanding that, Scottish politics is the issue to watch. The shortest route to independence is undoubtedly another Thatcherite government with no representation in Scotland.

    Trident isn’t even close, though it’s the next best thing.

    Since the SNP victory, Nuclear power generators have discovered that there are high costs of transmission to the south of England and new facilities should be in the south, so there is no problem there. Maybe the LibDem policy on Trident will be adopted.

    These issues are on the horizon and likely to be more relevant than anything happening right now, but it still is “events” that could make the difference if Labour is unlucky in the weeks before the election.

    What Harold MacMillan called “events” can happen in the relatonshp between the two parliaments. Scotland. If, before the election, the unionist parties agree on additional powers for the Scottish parliament, Gordon Brown must at once agree to anything they want and not take any risks if he wants to hang on to his constituency seat.

  27. As I said above, a hung parliament is unlikely outcome in FPTP and as has been suggested above, the LibDems have good reason to be leery of supporting Labour.

    If you were Gordon Brown, and assuming that I am wrong about SNP gains and the numbers were right, would you rather stay in power and do a deal with the SNP on their terms or resign and make way for a Conservative government when the party rank and file know you could have avoided it?

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