Allan Massie: Tories’ good humour may not last long

Positive news about the economy does not necessarily mean votes for the ‘nasty party’ in the next general election, writes Allan Massie

'Given the choice between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, they believe the electorate will choose Cameron'. Picture: Getty
'Given the choice between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, they believe the electorate will choose Cameron'. Picture: Getty

HOW quickly things seem to have turned round! There is at last good news about the economy. Growth seems to have returned. Exports are up. The trade gap is narrowing, the balance of payments is therefore improving – not that anyone seems to pay much attention to that now, though in the days before exchange rates were allowed to float, it used to keep Treasury ministers awake at night.

Of course, the deficit remains high. The government still spends more than it collects in tax, and has to make up the difference by borrowing. But even this is less worrying, it seems, because the Bank of England continues to print money by the process of quantitative easing and uses it to buy up government debt. Few of us understand this process which seemingly allows money to be invented and then disappear. But there it is. Things are looking up and George Osborne may claim that the economy has turned the corner. Family incomes are still being squeezed down, but house prices are rising and this is supposed to make everyone feel good. So there is a smile on Tory faces and a spring in their step.

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They have other reasons to feel cheerful. Labour is embroiled in a messy argument with its chief paymasters in the unions, and every time Len McCluskey of Unite appears on the TV, Tory spirits leap. If they could have invented Mr McCluskey, they would undoubtedly have done so. Then in England anyway, the Tories are no longer held responsible for the troubles of the NHS, and few think that these can be solved simply by flinging more money at the service. Gordon Brown tried that, and, say the Tories, “look where we are now”. Moreover, general elections are becoming more and more presidential, and the Tories are sure that Ed Miliband is quite simply failing to connect with the public. He looks, they think, as improbable a prime minister as Neil Kinnock did.

In making this comparison they are forgetting a few of their own choices as party leader. William Hague and Michael Howard both lost elections, and they ditched Iain Duncan Smith even before he came under starter’s orders. Given the choice between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, they believe the electorate will choose Cameron.

Yet the odds are still against the Conservatives winning the next election, even against them being the biggest party in the Commons. The first reason is mathematical. The Tories need more votes than Labour to win the same number of seats; Labour might secure a Commons majority with 36 per cent of the vote; the Tories need 40 per cent or more. Failure to get their coalition partners to approve a boundary review is expected to cost them dear. So the Tories have to improve their present position just to hold their ground; Labour doesn’t.

Then there are the unknowns relating to the Liberal Democrats and Ukip. Everyone expects the Lib Dem vote to fall, though they may well hold on to seats where they are deeply entrenched. But it’s unlikely in the extreme that defecting Lib Dem voters will turn to the Tories. If they abandon Nick Clegg, it’s because they dislike the coalition and its policies. So they won’t vote for the senior partner in the coalition. The choice for defecting Lib Dem voters in England is Labour or Ukip, in Scotland Labour or the SNP. No joy for David Cameron there.

And what of Ukip? The party is looking less menacing than it did a few months ago, as some of its MEPs and councillors show themselves to be embarrassments rather than assets. But it remains a welcoming home for disgruntled Tory voters – and there are still lots of them. Moreover, it is expected to get a boost from next year’s European elections, and, though it will probably fall back when people’s minds are concentrated on which party will form the next UK government, it has only to take something between 8 and 10 per cent of the vote to do the Tories considerable damage.

Meanwhile, the problem persists; the further the Tories go to win back Ukip supporters, the more likely that their appeal to the centre will diminish. Even good news about the economy may not benefit the Tories as much as they hope. Bill Clinton’s campaign line, “it’s the economy, stupid”, is often quoted, but it’s not always so. In 1997, the economy was on the up and in opinion polls the Tories were still more trusted than Labour on the economy. Nevertheless, they lost the election and lost it heavily. This time round, Labour may have been responsible for the mess we were in, but it’s the coalition that has inflicted the pain. The Conservatives need more than an improving economy to win enough seats to remain in government.

All the same, their position looks better than it did even six months ago. Their crackdown on welfare spending and immigration is seemingly more popular than most Left-inclining pundits expected. Critics of these policies ignored what both observation and common sense tell us: that the wage-earner is the person most likely to disapprove of those who seem content to live on benefits, and that not everyone who thinks there are too many immigrants is a racist. Yet severe measures restricting welfare spending and controlling immigration confirm others’ view of the Tories as “the nasty party”. So these policies aren’t necessarily vote-winners, on balance anyway.

There’s another unknown about this UK general election. Suppose Scotland votes “Yes” next year. We would have opted for independence, but it’s hard to believe that the terms of independence would have been negotiated successfully by May 2015. So we would then still be part of the United Kingdom, and as such entitled to send MPs to Westminster even though they would have to withdraw at some point in the next parliament. This would all be a bit bizarre. Thanks to the Scottish electorate there might be a Labour UK government in office, which would then lose its majority as soon as the Scottish members had to leave the House of Commons. But would it be considered proper for Labour to form a government in such circumstances?