Three key tests for David Cameron
- 8 Feb 08, 06:08 PM
Quietly, and barely noticed, people in the political community are starting to contemplate a change of government, and to prepare for it. Government political advisers are putting out feelers for jobs in the private sector. Left-leaning think tanks, lobbyists and PR firms who’ve all thrived in the years of New Labour, are starting to re-orientate themselves, trying to recruit more staff with Conservative backgrounds, all in readiness for the day they will have to prove their worth under a Cameron regime, and show strong personal links with his likely team of ministers.
But personally I am far from convinced that David Cameron will emerge from the next election as Prime Minister – if you put a gun to my head I’d say it’s still only 50-50. Despite Gordon Brown’s troubles (and continuing gloom in the Labour ranks), I know that many leading Conservatives privately share my doubts about their prospects.
It’s that 2008 doesn’t yet have the feel of the years 1994 to 1997, when the newly elected Tony Blair inspired a genuine popular enthusiasm for New Labour, which by 1996 became a widespread assumption that Labour would return to power. Whilst many of the public have severe doubts about Gordon Brown and the Labour government, they aren’t yet convinced that David Cameron is the answer, or has the answers.
And whilst the Tories are ahead in the polls, they aren’t yet matching Tony Blair’s huge double-digit (often more than 20 per cent) leads of the mid-1990s. And remember the huge bias in the electoral system which means (depending on which analysis you trust) the Conservatives have to get between six and ten per cent head of Labour simply to win an equal number of seats.
To persuade me that David Cameron is on his way to Downing Street let me pose three tests.
The Conservatives have to win a London-wide election, in the way they often won elections for the Greater London Council in the 1960s and ‘70s. This could come as early as 1 May, of course, with the candidacy of Boris Johnson for London Mayor. Several recent polls showing Johnson has a good chance against Ken Livingstone, and various allegations surrounding the Mayor, are certainly worrying people in Downing Street. On the other hand many London Tories are deeply frustrated that Boris Johnson seems, in their view, to be running a pretty poor campaign.
The party has to gain at least one seat in a Parliamentary by-election, something they’ve not done since Angela Rumbold won Mitcham and Morden in the early 1980s. It’s a tough test this, since by-elections are pretty rare these days, thanks to the pressure which parties put on MPs to retire early, and well before they might die in office. And the other problem the Tories often have is that the Lib Dems are the by-election kings nowadays and may easily swoop for seats which in the past the Tories would have considered easy pickings.
The Conservative have to start attracting some high-level defections, in the way we saw defections away from John Major’s party in the mid-1990s, including Emma Nicholson, Alan Howarth and Peter Thurnham. The biggest defection to the Tories in recent years was Sajjad Karim, an obscure the Lib Dem MEP from the North West, who joined the Tories last year, in a move which was barely noticed at the time. Mr Karim doesn’t count I’m afraid; nor do the many councillors who have switched to Cameron’s party. My test requires meaty, high-rank defections - MPs or former Cabinet ministers, and preferably well-known ones. But the best known Westminster defection of recent months, Quentin Davies, was away from David Cameron’s party.
If the Conservatives can pass any two of the three above tests then I could well start thinking they’re likely to return to government. Until then, I have my doubts.