If the economic recovery continues until May next year there is at least a possibility that the Conservatives will be the largest party after the General Election.
Since 1979 voters have rewarded governments with at least three terms in office and although the Tories didn’t win outright in 2010 they will get most of the credit for turning the economy around. Labour is still vulnerable to being characterised as the party that got us into the mess. It’s a rough old world but reference to the worldwide recession by the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls won’t wash with many voters.
But it is only largest party status that the Conservatives can realistically hope for. The failure to reform constituency boundaries will cost them 20 odd seats. They will also lose votes to UKIP if their recent lacklustre campaign in Wythenshawe is anything to go by. The Tory candidate there was a hapless vicar who party managers allowed to be filmed on TV wandering around on his own having his leaflets refused by shoppers. They tried to pass off criticism by saying that a constituency which historically had one of the largest council estates in Europe was not their territory. That wasn’t Harold Macmillan’s view when he built hundreds of thousands of houses in the fifties or Margaret Thatcher when she introduced the right to buy.
The Tories are never going to win seats like Wythenshawe and South Shields but they should try and beat UKIP into second place. In six northern by elections in this parliament they have trailed in behind Nigel Farage. Across the north UKIP may become the default vote for blue collar workers who aren’t Labour.
All that said I still think the Tories could be the largest party in May 2015, so what happens then?
There has been speculation that David Cameron is set to promise to rule out a further coalition with the Lib Dems in advance of the poll. The advantages of this would be to focus people’s minds on a straight choice between Tories and Labour and it would avoid an embarrassing row with right wing Conservative backbenchers who are determined to reject a further deal with Nick Clegg. I think it is very likely that if Cameron tried to continue the current arrangement, he’d be removed.
The idea of a Conservative minority government has been dismissed on the grounds that it would be unstable and wouldn’t last. That presupposes that the defeated Labour and Liberal Democrat parties would be eager to force a second election. This is nonsense. In a second election the voters would likely repeat their message that they preferred the Tories and might even give them an overall majority to punish the parties that hadn’t got the message. The evidence of recent “replay” elections bears this out. Labour won narrowly in 1964 and handsomely in 1966. They were short of a majority exactly 40 years ago in March 1974 and won a slim lead the following October.
There is no reason why a Conservative minority government couldn’t rule for a parliament provided it steered a moderate course. It could even reasonably renegotiate our terms of membership with the European Union and seek to put it to a referendum. Would Labour and the Liberal Democrats oppose this with the 2020 General Election already coming into view?