Bookmakers, pollsters and increasingly Conservative commentators are coming to the conclusion that the Tories are going to be out of office in nine months’ time. Yet despite almost everything pointing to a Tory defeat at next year’s general election, the mood in Downing Street and Conservative headquarters is calm, even confident.
Do they know something we don’t? Or are David Cameron and his team sleepwalking towards the prospect of Prime Minister Miliband?
On paper it is difficult to see any other outcome. This government’s failure to reform constituency boundaries – either Lib Dem betrayal or Tory hara-kiri depending on your perspective – means that before a vote is cast Labour already has a considerable advantage.
Next year, once again, fewer votes will be needed to elect Labour MPs than to elect Tories. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be over-represented. Southern England will be under-represented. Unfair and anti-democratic as this patently is, it is no use moaning about it now. Labour may well win a smaller proportion of the total vote share than the Tories, yet still win more seats. It is an understatement to say Cameron starts from an unenviable position.
Then there are the polls. Lord Ashcroft’s tend to go up and down more than Mehdi Hasan at a laptop, but they are consistent in their pessimism. In May the Tory peer polled 26,000 voters in 26 Labour-Tory marginal constituencies. He found a 6.5 percent swing from the Conservatives to Labour, which translates to 83 Tory MPs losing their seats and Miliband winning a majority.
Even if this turns out to be far worse than reality, it is clear Labour are making significant gains. Miliband’s party is still comfortably ahead with every pollster week after week. He can still win if he is a few points behind. The maths don’t lie: Labour is in a far better position than the Conservatives.
That is without mentioning the small problem of UKIP. Private Labour Party polling predicts that if UKIP wins just 9 percent of the vote next year, Miliband becomes PM. The Tory line is “Vote Farage, get Miliband” for a reason. It is completely true. The only issue is it is very possible that at least 9 percent decide to vote UKIP anyway, and let Miliband in.
Yet, for many in Tory HQ, these seemingly apocalyptic problems are entirely surmountable. On polling day, faced with the prospect of Miliband in Number 10, the nation will come to its senses and vote for Cameron. This seems to be conventional wisdom in CCHQ. The Labour leader will face unprecedented personal scrutiny and criticism from the autumn onwards. Added to the encouraging approval ratings of George Osborne, the disastrous ratings of Ed Balls, and the continued improvement of the economy, and the Tories reckon they will cling on.
In the last week, however, two leading Conservative writers have sought to warn Cameron to beware the unthinkable. James Forsyth of the Spectator is unflinching: “Next May, two years before his 50th birthday, his political career could be over… He’ll know that this could be his last summer as Prime Minister.”
The Times’ Tim Montgomerie is equally blunt: “Cut the gimmicks. Cut the half measures. Don’t just talk about a long-term economic plan and changing Europe, get on with it. Even in an election year. Especially in an election year.” His message: “Get serious, Mr Cameron – or you’ll lose.”
Nine months before polling day and almost everything is pointing to a Tory defeat. The maths are well in Labour’s favour. Boundary reform failed and Labour can still win with a far worse poll rating than they have currently. Cameron has no plan to regain votes lost to UKIP. That is why the bookies have Miliband as favourite to be PM after the election. The Tories clearly need to do more than just shout “Ed Miliband” at voters considering choosing Labour on May 7th. At the moment, however, no one in Number 10 or CCHQ seems to have any other ideas.