Cameron Capers
The anatomy of the British election.


John O’Sullivan

Politics is the art of the plausible. Only two weeks after the British electorate ushered in the apparent uncertainty of a hung Parliament, the Lib-Dem-Con coalition cobbled together from the disappointed Tories and the third-place Liberal Democrats has already acquired an aura of inevitability. This aura has been created in part by the leaders of the two parties. Though politically at odds (at least until the polls closed), Tory David Cameron and Lib-Dem Nick Clegg are socially almost identical: both rich, both well-connected, both graduates of famous public (i.e., private) schools and Oxbridge, both married to stylish successful career women, and both dedicated full-time career politicians who, as the saying goes, “never had a real job.”

Their ideological overlap is similarly large: Cameron long ago described himself as a “liberal conservative” and Clegg, briefly a Tory at college, wrote essays for the market-friendly wing of his own otherwise “progressive” party. Neither is “tribal” — the current media term for genuinely holding the views you and your party officially espouse. Their joint press conference in the Downing Street garden announcing the new coalition was accordingly smooth, seamless, and eerily harmonious. It reminded me of a soft-shoe shuffle duo each of whom knows the other’s routine so perfectly that he can play either part. (See, for instance, here.)

The smoothness of this joint performance was reflected in the ease with which both parties agreed on a common program. Press reports even alleged that Tory negotiators had invited the Lib-Dems to strike out manifesto items that were too embarrassingly conservative. Cameron’s fierce wooing of Lib-Dem voters before the election began to look like a shrewd preparation for an alliance with their party after it. In fact, as we shall see, it was a failed electoral calculation beforehand that nonetheless facilitated a quick adaptation to an unexpected alliance afterwards.

But if Cameron’s far-sightedness wasn’t the explanation, then maybe a Tory–Lib-Dem coming together was, well, sort of inevitable in the light of, you know, historical developments like, er, Britain now being a social-democratic country, essentially. On this theory (advanced mainly by progressive columnists seeking to establish their own inevitability but also supported by a few despairing Tory intellectuals) the Tories simply cannot win an election on their own — ever again! — and so must combine with the more progressive Lib-Dems to share power.

Naturally the infamous Tory Right is unhappy with this. (Liberal Tories are allegedly more realistic.) But it is also powerless to do much about it — it’s being marginalized by history at long last!

That is how the world — or at least the metropolitan media — increasingly sees the coalition: the product less of electoral accident than of factors such as converging ideologies, the gravitational pull of the center, and “the cunning of history.” From this standpoint, the coalition seems a natural and even permanent feature of British politics because it is an inevitable one.

As always, however, inevitability has to be carried along by a stretcher party of supporting arguments.

The first such argument is that the Cameron strategy — i.e., dissing the conservative base to show centrists that the “nasty” Tory party had changed — did pretty well in the election itself. This is important because if Cameronism did badly, then the coalition is a gimcrack alliance of losers rather than the carrier of inevitable progress. Yet since the Tories improved their share of the national vote by a mere 3.8 percent to 36.1 percent against a failed, discredited, and unpopular government, that is a hard case to prove. Its advocates have to dig deep for statistical measures that seem to justify it. They have fixed on two: the Labour-to-Tory electoral swing and the rise in the raw number of Tory voters.

Cameron’s favorable swing, they initially pointed out, was higher than the swing enjoyed in a similar election by Margaret Thatcher in 1979. In fact, this seems not to be the case: Thatcher’s Labour-to-Tory swing in 1979 was 5.2 percent, versus a swing this year of 5.0 percent at the end of the night. But why quibble about a secondary matter? The swing measures not the level of support of one party but the change in relative support between two parties. If party A loses 10 percent of its voters between elections while rival party B gets exactly the same level of support as before, then the statisticians will register an A-to-B swing of 5 percent.