It’s the economy, stupid!
The defeat of the Conservative plan to reduce the number of MPs in the House of Commons from 650 to 600, caused by their Liberal Democrat coalition “partners” voting it down in pique after failing to get House of Lords reform or AV has led to questioning of whether the government can really limp on another 2 1/2 years or indeed, whether it ought to do so. Continuation of the current number of MPs with no changes to the boundaries of their constituencies mean that only a 0.1% swing to Labour would be needed for a Labour majority and for the Conservatives to require an 8% lead in the popular vote to get a majority.
Chances of David Cameron being in a position to deliver on his speech about the EU delivered last week or indeed anything else after 2015 look slim indeed. As a friend commented to me recently, who exactly, of those who didn’t vote Tory in 2010 would now vote for them? Perhaps some who went to UKIP might be tempted back as single issue zealots, if they are sensible enough to realise that any other vote would mean there was no chance of a referendum on EU membership. That, on 2010 numbers might be enough to be worth a number of seats. However, it is hard to see many LibDem voters switching away other than to Labour – and while this could lead to some Tory gains in seats where they are reasonably close challengers to LibDem incumbents, those are likely to be limited. So something has to be done if the Tories want to stay in government.
One of the suggestions made in the linked article above is that the Conservatives need to find a “big idea” to give the Coalition government purpose for the rest of its term. However, elsewhere, quite sensibly, it is recognised that the only thing that will really make a difference, or at least could make a difference to their currently dismal ratings is for the economy to be doing well-ish by 2015.
I agree that the state of the economy will be a major factor in 2015, but five years of continuous anger and whining about how terrible absolutely everything is could well mask anything other than a very clear return to obvious good health that is felt by large parts of the country. Some of that could be conjured up by the economy being just good enough to allow for a bit of a giveaway in the 2015 Budget (and I commented last year on a possible way this could have already been engineered). Large cuts in fuel duty would also be a good way to make an immediate positive impression on the wallets of ordinary voters, particularly in the light of the OFT finding that, unsurprisingly, increases in petrol prices were almost entirely down to tax increases and the increasing cost of crude oil. Starting a down escalator for fuel duty in 2013 would be an interesting move for George Osborne.
OK, so the economy is still the main thing, but what else could the Conservatives do to give themselves a chance to win in 2015? One thing might be to start working as if instead of being in coalition, that they are actually in a minority government with supply and confidence motion support only from the Lib Dems. That would mean not relying on back-bench LibDem support for any particular policies and accepting that the government may well lose a number of future votes but that the government would be able to continue on the path it chose for the economy.
This is not such a fanciful idea as it is hard to see many “big ideas” that could usefully be brought in now to galvanise the government. Whatever you think of the policies themselves, the reality is that the coalition has already passed its major legislation on schools and universities, health, welfare and local government. We are very much in the implementation stages now and there is perhaps little in the remaining legislative schedule that is particularly definitive or which could not be sacrificed. A sign of this was the bringing forward of the legislation on regulating supermarkets’ relations with suppliers, which would in any other time have been first Bill to lose out in the “Balloon Game” played by ministers and officials when negotiating the contents of the Queen’s Speech.
Letting disgruntled Tory backbenchers kill off a bonkers edict or two from the Department of Climate Change would give them some morale-boosting wins over their erstwhile LibDem colleagues. This might even apply to the legislation on Same Sex Marriage (a policy I have no problem with), if Labour continues in its strategy of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” and votes against it to embarrass the government (as it did in killing off Lords reform). If the Conservatives can come up with popular and populist legislation, particularly towards 2015, which itself gets killed off by Labour and the LibDems this would actually be beneficial to them in letting them set out what they would do if given a majority in 2015. The EU Referendum Bill would therefore ideally be introduced and voted down during the 2014-15 session, making it impossible for either Labour or the LibDems to offer a referendum as a plausible policy for their 2015 manifestos.
The other thing that could be done in this context would be to stop trying to be liked. It won’t work as the narrative of every single government measure being monstrous has taken hold too strongly, regardless of merit or impact. For example, the figures published today from UCAS show very large increases in the numbers of students applying for degrees in “hard” and “useful” subjects like engineering and sciences and the highest ever proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds applying for university. These are likely to be consequences of the big increase in tuition fees (making “fluffy” subjects less appealing when students wonder at whether they are worth getting into £27k of debt to read) and the woefully under-reported support and fee waivers for the students from the poorest backgrounds. Yet the abiding memory for most will be “this government trebled tuition fees, killing the aspirations of millions”. So, under cover of not possibly becoming less popular, the government could and should go harder on deficit reduction – having taken the popularity hit for austerity, it could actually start on austerity.
I don’t expect that in reality David Cameron would be attracted to playing dirty with the coalition like this or to abandon attempting to placate people, but I’m not sure there is any realistic alternative other than hoping for the economy to do better than George Osborne’s wildest dreams.