January 2, 2016
Looking back on 2015, the odd thing is that David Cameron's triumphs should provoke such surprise. The events that gave him total command of British politics have been enjoyed as a fairy tale by some and lamented as a nightmare by others. Either way, we have all witnessed a melodrama in five acts.
ACT ONE began unpromisingly for Cameron back in June 2014. Ukip's victory in the elections to the European Parliament had been widely predicted, but Tory right-wingers professed great shock. In fact, of course, they were privately delighted, especially when polls showed Labour extending its lead to 20 points, as many Tory voters said they would continue voting Ukip at a general election. The result gave the euro-sceptics the stick they needed to thwack their party leader. As we now know, they gave him an ultimatum: commit to an in-out referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, or they would defect to Ukip and destroy any chance of the Tories staying in government.
At the time we knew nothing of these manoeuvrings. The ultimatum was delivered in private. The MPs realised that Cameron would look weak were he seen to surrender to a group of rebellious backbenchers. Besides, the MPs were not at all sure they would be re-elected if they stood as Ukip candidates. Their ultimatum contained a bluff they were desperate would not be called.
However, Cameron did what they asked. He agreed to firm up the somewhat woolly speech on Europe he had delivered back in January 2013. In October 2014 he told the Conservative Party conference: "The time has come for Britain to decide its destiny. Within six months of the next election, my Conservative government will give the British people the clear choice they rightly demand."
Much of the media went wild. The Daily Mail headline said: "CAMERON BACKS BRITAIN". The Sun filled its front page with a picture of Cameron wearing a bowler hat, holding a large cigar in one hand and making a V-for-victory sign with the other. The Express and Telegraph both claimed success for their own brand of campaigning journalism. The next day YouGov reported a sharp rise in Cameron's rating. With Ukip-inclined Tories beginning to return home, Labour's lead dipped to 12%.
The prime minister's commitment triggered a sharp debate inside Labour's shadow cabinet. But whereas Cameron's speech was presented, wrongly, as the statesmanlike act of a man in full control of his party, Labour's heavily-leaked internal discussions were, also wrongly, dressed up as a civil war. When Ed Miliband decided to match Cameron's promise, many voters regarded his announcement as that of a weak leader buffeted by events and by his colleagues. Labour's lead slipped further.
ACT TWO, just twelve months ago, saw the Tories launch an attack on welfare reform. They accused Labour of wasting money on undeserving claimants because it needed their votes. One Conservative advertisement, inspired by Saatchi and Saatchi's campaigns from the Thatcher era, showed £20 notes disappearing down a drain. The caption simply read: "LABOUR'S POLICY ON WELFARE."
Labour retorted that it would help normal people who deserved help - families with young children, workers on low wages, youngsters seeking their first job and retired folk who relied on the state pension. But a plethora of 'scrounger' stories in the tabloids made a bigger impression, especially when the Conservatives went on to claim that Labour's welfare policies would, in time, add 5p to the rate of income tax.
Labour summoned independent experts to debunk the Tory claim. Sadly for Miliband, detailed analyses in the Guardian and the Independent failed to revive Labour's reputation for fairness and competence. When the election campaign started in earnest in early April, Labour's lead was down to six points. However, Miliband could still look forward to a comfortable overall majority - provided Labour didn't slip any further.
ACT THREE was the election campaign itself. This was, above all else, a battle between the two main parties to blame the other for the state of the British economy. The Tories, learning from Barack Obama's successful re-election campaign in 2012, kept asking: 'do you really want to hand power back to the people who got us into a mess in the first place?' The two Eds, Miliband and Balls, retorted that when Labour left office, Britain's economy was recovering, but Tory policies pushed Britain back into recession. They depicted Cameron in posters as a dodgy, used-car salesman, 'Double Dip Dave'.
For a while the only impact of the contest was to help the Liberal Democrats achieve a modest revival, as some voters recoiled from the relentlessly negative campaigning by the two main parties. Then came the moment that changed the course of the election. The Office for National Statistics produced revised figures for Britain's gross domestic product. These showed that the economy had done better back in 2012, and started to recover earlier, than previously thought. GDP had not slipped back that year after all. There had been no double-dip recession.
The cries of joy in Conservative Central Office could be heard by passers-by on Millbank. Labour's campaign was made to look ridiculous. After that, there could be little doubt that many floating voters regarded the election more as a second referendum on Gordon Brown's record than a first referendum on the Cameron years. Ukip's support continued to fall, while the Tories recovered further. The final polls showed the Tories edging fractionally ahead. Another hung parliament loomed. However, given the Tories' failure to redraw the parliamentary boundaries (a process that would have been worth 20 seats to them), Ed Miliband remained on course to become prime minister. The only doubt was whether Labour would have enough MPs for him to lead a single-party minority government, or whether he would need a deal with Clegg and the Lib Dems.
ACT FOUR unfolded on election night. The first results, from the North-East as usual, produced a clear swing to Labour. So did Birmingham Edgbaston, which Gisela Stuart held with a sharply increased majority. Torbay produced the first gain of the night, with the Conservatives taking the seat from the Lib Dems; but with Labour more than doubling its share of the vote to 15%, the evidence of a sustained rise in the party's share seemed to confirm Miliband's optimism.
Then, within the space of ten minutes, came three results that shattered his hopes. The Tories held Kingswood, Ipswich and Pendle - three of Labour's must-win target seats. In all three, Labour added significantly to its vote. But the Conservatives added just as much, so their majorities remained much the same. This set the pattern for the rest of the night: Labour gained ground against the Tories everywhere except the marginal seats that mattered most.
The final result showed that the trend detected by the final polls continued into election day. Ukip's vote fell further, especially in the Conservative marginals, as its supporters returned to the Tories in order to keep Miliband out of Downing Street.
The big losers were the Lib Dems, which lost six seats to Labour and 24 to the Conservatives. It was these Tory gains that gave Cameron his overall majority. And the irony was that, in these seats, the biggest movements were invariably from Lib Dem to Labour, as left-of-centre voters punished Nick Clegg's party for joining the coalition back in 2010. By returning 'home', these Labour voters helped Cameron reach his winning post.
Overall, the Conservatives won 39% of the popular vote, Labour 35%, the Lib Dems 13%, UKIP 4%, others 9%. What was not foreseen was the way votes translated into seats. The Tories had been expected to need a seven-point lead to secure an overall majority. In the event they needed only a four point lead. This was because they not only won seats from the Lib Dems; they also prevented a swing against them in Con-Lab marginals.
ACT FIVE saw Cameron's even more emphatic victory four months later. In September he held the promised referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EU. He advocated a 'yes' vote, saying he had protected the UK's vital interests. William Cash produced a long, closely-argued rebuttal, showing that Cameron had done nothing of the sort. Historians may well come to regard Cash's analysis as correct in every particular.
However, referendums are decided not by historians of the future, but by voters of today. In last September's campaign they were influenced more by the dire warnings from business leaders. For years their determination to avoid discussing British membership of the EU was matched only by their determination to avoid taxes. Now, finally, they jumped off the fence. They predicted that leaving the EU would cost millions of jobs. An exaggeration? Probably. Worrying? Definitely. That was the point. Voters did not need to believe every gloomy prediction of life outside the EU. They needed only to fear that there might be some truth in some of them to judge that to 'leave Europe' would be to take a fearful gamble. As so often happens in referendums round the world, the-grass-is-greener arguments for change ended up being trumped by the keep-a-hold-of-nurse arguments for the status quo. And with David Miliband and Chris Huhne, the new leaders of their respective parties, also advocating a 'yes' vote, the electorate opted by two-to-one to do as business leaders and the three party leaders recommended.
Today, Cameron and his family are at Chequers, enjoying perhaps the happiest new year of his premiership. He is the undoubted master of Britain's political landscape. His Labour, Lib Dem and Ukip opponents have turned in on themselves. His own backbench rebels have fallen silent. He is already dreaming of how to win his third general election in 2020.
He has only one problem. He has no idea how to fill his time, and keep MPs busy, for the next four years.