Cameron Capers
The anatomy of the British election.


John O’Sullivan

The broad sweep of Montgomerie’s narrative is amply confirmed by the graph of polling data from 2005 to the present on the independent website UK Polling Report. Cameron’s election in late 2005 produces a small but important rise in the polls for the Tories. For most of 2006 and 2007, however, they jog along at around 37–38 percent until the 2007 conference when they begin a rise that takes them to a solid 45–48 percent plateau for a few months in mid-2008, until the financial crisis breaks. At that point (when they should gain ground), they start a long, slow downward trend. They stage occasional upsurges against this trend in 2009 and look as if they might enter election year with a 38–42 percent range of support. But in November, Cameron withdraws his “cast iron” pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty advancing European political unification — a matter of both trust and importance to the conservative base. His numbers now begin a slow and erratic fall until he enters the campaign itself with numbers generally in the range of 35–38 percent. That is also where he ended up on Election Day. It is a clear narrative of failure.

Some of the voters who defected in the final six months went to the two “fringe parties” of the right — the Euroskeptic UKIP party, which gained 3.1 percent of the popular vote, and the neo-fascist British National party, which received 1.9 percent. If only half of the combined UKIP-BNP vote had gone to the Tories, they would have had a popular vote total of 38.6 percent and a small overall majority in the House of Commons. Estimates of the Tory seats lost as a result range from 21 to 41 — say, about 30 — which would have given them a majority of around 20. But that calculation may well understate the loss of conservative voters suffered by the Cameroons because of their (and their predecessors’) neglect and even disdain of natural conservative voters. Some of the disillusioned Tory voters would have simply not voted at all. The turnout figures above show that compared with 1997, between 21 and 18 percent of the electorate have simply stayed at home on election day. It would not be surprising if right-wing voters — either Tories discontented over the Lisbon Treaty or ex-Labour voters angry at uncontrolled immigration who would once have crossed over — amounted to a disproportionate number of these stay-at-homes.

In the face of these facts, some supporters of the Cameron project argue that there are fewer votes on the right than in the center; Cameron simply went duck-hunting where the ducks were. That argument falls on two grounds, however. In the first place, there is more competition for votes in the center — from Labour, the Lib-Dems, and the Greens (now represented in Parliament) as well as the Tories. Indeed, in this election the Lib-Dems themselves actually gained an additional 1 percent of the popular vote (though they lost a handful of seats). Secondly, most of the voters on the right were until recently part of the conservative base or at least open to broadly conservative arguments. Such voters should in principle be easier to recruit than those who have never been attracted by conservative ideas in the first place. But Cameroons repeatedly dismissed the idea of appealing to them as a strategy of merely holding on to the base. Their own unacknowledged strategy, however, was the far riskier one of replacing the base.

NR forecast the likely result: “What must be the Tory nightmare is to see their vote rising to 36 percent — 4 or 5 percent short of what is needed for a parliamentary majority — and the insurgent UKIP party getting that same percentage of votes from discontented toxic Tories.” It turned out to be uncannily accurate.

So unless nightmares are daydreams, the Cameron strategy plainly failed and the Tories plainly lost. Any other conclusion is self-deception.

That leaves one possible last-ditch defense of the Cameron strategy: Defeat was inevitable in any event, because Britain is a social-democratic country with a “progressive” majority of Labour and Lib-Dem voters. Cameron merely adapted to that inevitability before, during, and after the election. This argument is essentially manufactured by adding together the Labour and Lib-Dem votes and pointing out that they total about 52 percent of the electorate. Exactly the same technique could prove the existence of a natural conservative or anti-socialist majority by adding the Conservative and Lib-Dem votes for a total of almost 60 percent. On this logic, however, the largest natural majority would be an anti-Liberal one of exactly two-thirds of the voters!