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.
Something like that happened in 2010. Labour lost 6.2 percent of its national vote in comparison with the 2005 election; the Tories gained 3.8 percent; and the total of those numbers divided by two was a swing of 5.0 percent. So Gordon Brown’s retreat contributed almost two-thirds of the Labour-to-Tory swing; the Tories’ advance accounted for a feeble 1.9 percent. Hardly impressive. If you want a truer indicator of electoral support, look instead at the percentage of the national vote won by a party. Cameron’s Conservatives won 36.1 percent this year; Margaret Thatcher’s winning percentage in 1979 was 43.9. Case closed.
What, then, of the rise in the raw numbers of votes for the Tories this year? This was indeed impressive — an increase of more than 2 million votes on 2005 to reach a total of 10,683,787. Indeed, that raw number is higher than the Tory vote totals in both the 2001 and 1997 elections. On the other hand, it’s between 2.5 and 3.5 million votes lower than John Major’s total in the 1992 election and than the Tory total in all three of Thatcher’s elections. Am I “nostalgic,” as David Frum has suggested, for those victories? You betcha! But I am also curious about these dramatic variations between then and now. Is there some third factor, some hidden clue, which might help us to account for them? As it happens, there is such a clue: turnout.
At 65.1 percent of the electorate, amounting to 29,638,653 voters, turnout in 2010 was sharply higher than in the two previous elections. It rose by 3.7 percent and roughly 2.5 million votes above the figures in 2005 and by 6 percent and more than 3 million votes above 2001. Since Cameron attained a 3.8 percent increased share of this rising total, he saw his raw vote figures rise by the 2 million cited above. At the same time, however, Gordon Brown saw his percentage of the vote fall by a massive 6.2 percent, but because of the higher turnout, his voting numbers fell by less than 1 million.
Why did turnout rise? Well, the election campaign was exciting, the outcome in doubt, and the two previous elections had seen exceptionally low turnout. If we go back to the elections fought by Major and Thatcher, moreover, the turnouts varied between 73 and 78 percent. Hence their high percentages produced even higher raw vote numbers. So neither the medium turnout in 2010 nor the factors that produced it suggest a strong Tory revival — though they can be misused to mask a weak one.
A more reasonable defense of the Cameron strategy is that it was broadly correct but blown off course by the foolish decision to include Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg in the party leaders’ debates. There is something in this argument, but not as much as most pundits think. It is true that Clegg grabbed the limelight, seized the “change” mandate, and made himself the equal of Brown and Cameron. This undoubtedly disrupted both the Tory and Labour campaigns, but the Clegg effect faded and in the end had little impact on the Tory vote. Cameron was scoring roughly 35–38 percent in opinion polls prior to the leaders’ first debate; he fell to 30–33 percent in the weeks following it, but he recovered to hit almost the exact mid-point of his earlier 35–38 percent range on election day.
So what has to be explained is why Cameron was struggling to stay afloat in the mid-30s when the campaign began. Tim Montgomerie of the influential website www.conservativehome.com has published a wonderfully synoptic account of the Cameron caper that points out serious structural weaknesses in Cameronism. It never integrated his policy innovations — deep-green politics, etc. — into a coherent conservative narrative and thus sounded inauthentic. It shrank from “hot button” issues, such as immigration, even when polling research showed them to be matters of overwhelming concern to the voters. (Ironically, when the Tories did embrace more mainstream conservative policies, such as the inheritance-tax cut launched at the 2007 party conference, they enjoyed an upsurge in support. But they were viscerally uneasy about successes achieved outside the logic of Cameronism and never learned from them.)
Above all, Cameronism endorsed Labour’s economic and budgetary qualities for too long, was accordingly unable to profit from their dramatic collapse in late 2008, and thereafter failed to advance an agreed and consistent set of solutions. There are points of difference, but in general Montgomerie confirms my own earlier argument in NR that the Cameroons progressed heedlessly from realizing that the base was insufficient for victory to believing that it was an actual obstacle to victory. In their pursuit of centrists, they were carelessly content to alienate voters to their right. And they paid a penalty in missing votes.
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!
Such calculations are utterly bogus. They rest upon a false assumption that voters are self-conscious ideologues ranged along a left-right spectrum so that if a Labour voter moves rightwards, he will inevitably move into the Lib-Dem column, a disillusioned Tory towards the Lib-Dems, etc., etc. In fact, voters move in all directions and between all parties. For most of the last 50 years, however, the most common cross-over has been between the two main parties. And the most common motive for crossing over has been in reaction to the government of the day. Given the unpopularity of the Brown government, Tories reasonably expected that they would be the overwhelming beneficiaries of cross-over voting. They underperformed massively — and the reason was not any supposed “progressive majority” in the electorate but the failure of the Cameron strategy.
And on the day afterwards, everyone knew it. That was why Cameron had to get into government at any cost. As NR’s editorial points out, if he had not done so, he would have faced a major rebellion of resentful and unrestrained Tories and almost certainly lost office. Or if he had been able to form a minority single-party Tory government — which was a second-order possibility — he would have rested uneasily on the daily chance of defeat (and on support from no less resentful backbenchers). He therefore sought the one coalition that would give him a strong majority in Parliament, the possibility of an administration that could last five years, the ability to survive the travails of economic retrenchment, and not least some protection from his own party.
Cameronism is a foolish political strategy that was always likely to fail. But Cameron is a bold, daring, and imaginative politician — an opportunist in the good sense as well as the bad — and he stitched up the coalition and his internal enemies simultaneously by offering the Lib-Dem leader anything it took. It took quite a lot. The Tories are now committed to constitutional reforms that, in addition to offending their sense of constitutional continuity, also threaten to prevent their forming a single-party majority government ever again. They have agreed with their Lib-Dem partners to raise capital-gains tax substantially — possibly doubling it — on the savings of their natural supporters. And they have shed many of the policies — cutting the inheritance tax, for instance — that persuaded those supporters to tolerate the Cameron project throughout the opposition years. Most Tories don’t like these concessions, but they see them as temporary necessities on the road to majority government.
Are they correct in that?
For the moment, the coalition is in power and as the lawyers say, possession is nine points of the law. It has a majority large enough to last for the five years of a full Parliament — if it stays together — and it is proposing a constitutional change (namely, requiring a 55 percent super-majority for a parliamentary dissolution) that would more or less compel it to stay together. It has the approval of the establishment (even of the liberal establishment) since it is seen as a Lib-Dem government supported by Tories rather than the reverse. It is enjoying some modest popularity with almost everyone else. (But not excessively so — two recent polls show the Tories have gained 1 percent approval and the Lib-Dems have lost 3 percent before a single painful measure has been implemented.) And it floats along on the optimistic calculation that governments can shape events to suit their interests. That is a partial truth; governments are also hostage to events over which they have only modest control. The event that is fast approaching this coalition is a budgetary statement on June 22 that will inevitably inflict heavy costs on the voters in some combination of tax rises and public-spending cuts. How will a coalition riven by serious ideological divisions survive the prolonged unpopularity that economic distress will bring? Will Lib-Dems retreat from bold retrenchment when the going gets tough? Will Tories stay loyal if UKIP starts winning special elections?
One ominous sign for the coalition is the cheerful spirit of Labour MPs. They feel they dodged a bullet when Clegg went with Cameron rather than Brown. If a Lib-Lab government were today preparing a list of spending cuts for June 22, they know, they would be facing Armageddon in what would have been a much-too-soon election. They suffered no meltdown and have a solid base of 258 seats in Parliament. Rid of Brown, they are electing a new leader in a contest that will help give them a new image. And they are already beginning to work out how to exploit the coalition’s weaknesses on immigration, on the EU, and above all on the economic crisis for which they will shortly shrug off all responsibility.
One distinguished Cameroon recently justified forming the coalition with the argument that the Tories could never fully detoxify themselves in opposition. All an opposition can do is promise. Cameron needed to be in government, he said, in order to take the actions that would decisively change the image of the Tory party in a way no promise could do.
Exactly, responded a Labour supporter, thinking of June 22.
Mainstream Tories, however, have even more reason to ponder the same question. If the coalition manages to survive whatever difficulties lie ahead, they will presumably have to acquiesce in any number of concessions to the Lib-Dems and in a positive culling of their own party’s interests. The coalition is likely to foster a political culture in which conservative values and attitudes lie at the outer edge of the politically possible. One can already sense this happening in the welcome that some Tories now give to the idea of electoral reform. How passionately will they support the traditional “First Past the Post” electoral system in the coming referendum? And will Tory party discipline require MPs to campaign for FPTP in the referendum as firmly as it will require them to vote for electoral-reform legislation in the Commons? If the Tory leadership consistently leans to the Lib-Dems on such questions, the image (and reality) of the Tory party will gradually change. Both will become progressively less conservative.
And what happens if the coalition falls apart? Such a divorce might not necessarily divide the existing Tory and Lib-Dem parties. Events and issues largely determine these things. There could be a split within one party with the coalition remaining broadly intact. If the Lib-Dem Left were to depart, that would presumably strengthen the coalition’s conservative tendencies. But what if the rebellion were a substantial Tory one — maybe, as in 1922, one launched by a majority of Tories? Would Cameron side with the majority of his own party or with the coalition loyalists in both parties? And if 55 percent of MPs voted for a dissolution, would the coalition endorse its own candidates against the Tory rebels?
Five years after Cameron became Tory leader, these are not questions that answer themselves. In opposition, Cameronism has looked like, at best, a tactical judgment not to oppose the main cultural tendencies of post-Thatcher metropolitan liberalism, at worst a permanent surrender to it. A Tory government would have gradually established which was the correct interpretation. A coalition government will maintain this uncertainty for as long as it remains in being. For every liberal measure, Tory ministers will have the excuse that, however distasteful it is to them personally, it is also a concession absolutely essential to keeping the coalition in power. The worse the opinion polls, the more persuasive this argument would be to backbenchers. Over time, conservatives in government would become comfortable with making liberal arguments and impatient with right-wing criticism. Eventually they might persuade themselves. The Tory party would surrender to metropolitan liberalism by degrees — even if this were not Cameron’s original intention.
So it is essential for Tories inside and outside of Parliament (and, ideally, inside the government, too) to maintain a calm, steady, but unrelenting critique of liberal tendencies in coalition policy and a firm advocacy of realistic conservative alternatives. This would be a policy of criticism rather than of rebellion, but it might require occasional revolts on those issues more important than maintaining the coalition itself. Without a Tory willingness to rebel, the coalition will drift in a liberal direction; without a constant stream of Tory arguments, it will fail to move in the right direction.
Tory backbenchers must be both sheet and anchor to the Con-Lib coalition. Otherwise the Tory defeats will continue — even if lightly camouflaged as victories for the Cameroons.
– John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review. This piece is adapted from “Poisoned Chalice,” which ran in the June 7 edition of NR.