Brian Monteith: Cameron must come out fighting

Prime Minister David Cameron. Picture: TSPL
Prime Minister David Cameron. Picture: TSPL
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Spare a thought for the Prime Minister as he ponders his options over the next 12 months, writes Brian Monteith

FOR the sake of the Prime Minister’s nerves I do hope David Cameron saw in the New Year with a strong drink, for if the rest of 2014 is anything like the first half-dozen days it is going to be a bruising one.

New polling from Lord Ashcroft continues to show the size of the mountain that the Conservatives have to climb if they wish to win an outright victory in next year’s general election. Ashcroft’s latest in-depth and detailed polling analysis shows that 37 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2010 would not vote for the party tomorrow, more than six times the meagre 6 per cent of voters that have been attracted to the main governing party since the last general election.

If there is a silver lining to this dark and foreboding cloud it is that the switchers prefer David Cameron to Ed Miliband – and might therefore be won back – but they continue to harbour other doubts about the Conservatives on fairness and public services that are causing them to drift. Lord Ashcroft comments on his blog that “this research shows it is far from impossible for the Tories to win outright. But to do so they will need the votes of everyone who supported for them last time, plus practically everyone who is even prepared to think about doing so next time”.

It might be far from impossible but it remains a tall order when David Cameron is being pulled different ways by competing groups and being given mutually exclusive suggestions on how to win.

How can Cameron be tougher on the European Union when he has already said he would campaign for Britain to stay in the behemoth (even though he cannot know the outcome of his much promised renegotiation)? How can Cameron reconnect with the voters he has lost over issues like same-sex marriage that were meant to modernise the Conservative brand – a process that has thus far delivered no appreciable electoral gain?

Ashcroft’s solution is for Cameron to be more open and straightforward about what Conservatives will offer – a plea that many of us have been making to them in Scotland from time immemorial. He said: “Drawing a contrast with Labour and highlighting progress on welfare, immigration and the macro-economy, important though they are, will only take the Tories so far. It is one thing to say don’t turn back, but we also need to know where we’re going.”

The danger is that what Cameron offers may not be enough to win back those that have already deserted – or may drive away the people he has been studiously working to attract.

On top of this tough news there has also been the continuing demands from Alex Salmond to debate against the Prime Minister in the run up to the election and the launch of a campaign by political commentator and campaigner, Toby Young, to organise a “vote swap” arrangement with Ukip supporters that would prevent Conservative votes splitting in a way that would deny them seats and help bring a Labour victory.

Am I the only person that finds it rather rich that Alex Salmond is so keen on debating the views of David Cameron, an Englishman with an English constituency, when he consciously arranged for the views of tens of thousands of people on the Scottish electoral register to be excluded from taking part in the referendum? Why did he not wish to hear their views?

Might it be that the debating ploy is nothing more than a desperate attempt to polarise the referendum decision as a fight between Scotland and England in the anniversary year of the Battle of Bannockburn?

Indeed, like football supporters tend to measure their favoured club’s success by comparisons with their most bitter opponents - usually their nearest neighbours – rather than consider their achievements internationally, so too could an independent Scotland be expected to revert to comparing its economic and social progress against that of England, for evermore. That’s hardly a liberating approach but its the one that the depressing grandstanding of Alex Salmond suggests we would have to get used to.

Most Scottish nationalists will not have heard of Toby Young but he is one Englishman they will wish to raise their glasses to. If the strategy of the Tory commentator bears fruit and he can deliver a way for the Conservatives and Ukip to reach even an informal accommodation through “vote sharing” then the prospect of a Labour victory diminishes. According to nationalists this would be good news for them as their constant refrain about Scotland getting Tory governments it does not want would be given more credibility. Ukip remains a conundrum for more than just David Cameron. The Scottish performance of Ukip in this summer’s European Union elections remains the unknown variable with the greatest potential to redefine the referendum strategy of the Yes camp. If Ukip does well and even wins a seat it will especially wrong-foot the SNP by showing that we are not as different from the rest of the United Kingdom as it likes to claim and that Euro-scepticism is alive and well in Scotland.

If Ukip fails to impress in Scotland, while doing well everywhere else, it gives strength to the argument that without the Toby Young vote share manoeuvre, Ed Miliband will be the next prime minister, undermining the SNP’s negative scare story of a blue-blooded Tory government in 2015.

Neither outcome is likely to steady David Cameron’s nerves. If Ukip does well in Scotland it will most likely be at the expense of the Conservatives who see their incumbent MEP Struan Stevenson retire. A poor Ukip performance does not necessarily mean the Scottish Tories will hold their single seat while the Prime Minister will come under huge pressure to change his approach if Ukip humiliates his party in England and Wales.

He will need another strong drink to steady his nerves and consider the possibility of following the solutions offered by Lord Ashcroft and Toby Young.