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Tuesday, October 23, 2012 

The Tories can still win in 2015.

According to media consensus, David Cameron and the Conservatives had a bad first week back following the end of the conference season.  Any uplift from the decision to stop the extradition of Gary McKinnon to the US was swiftly curtailed by the belated resignation of Andrew Mitchell, just 48 hours after Ed Miliband had said the chief whip was "toast".  Add in the passing frenzy of George Osborne sitting in first class on a train to Euston having only paid for a standard ticket, his aide attempting to convince the ticket inspector that the Chancellor of the Exchequer couldn't be expected to sit in the pleb wagons as they were trying to watch a film on a laptop, and it isn't surprising there are long pieces, from hacks and Tories alike, suggesting Cameron needs to get a grip.

Cameron, naturally, has an answer to all this.  Away from the ephemeral stuff, the economy is beginning to turn.  Unemployment is down, and on Thursday it seems certain that the country will emerge from the double dip recession of the past 9 months with the publishing of the last quarter's GDP figures.  Inflation is also down, as is crime, and much more questionably, NHS waiting lists.  Everything is moving in the right direction, and shortly, the public at large will begin to recognise the improvement and support from the Conservatives will start to rise again.

There are, equally naturally, a number of holes in Cameron's argument.  While it seems likely there will have been growth in the third quarter, the figure itself will be crucial: economists suggest that anything less than 0.6% will be highly disappointing considering the making up for the lost output of the extra holiday for the diamond jubilee, while the Olympics should also have provided a boost.  If this turns out to be the case, all it will confirm is that we're still bumping along the bottom, with the economy broadly flat.

Similarly, while the unemployment figures are somewhat encouraging, they mask the fact that hundreds of thousands are underemployed, wanting to work longer but unable to get the hours.  The last quarter saw a drop of only 4,000 in those claiming jobseeker's allowance, while the number unable to find a job for over a year has also increased.  The work programme, much praised by Cameron and other ministers, doesn't seem to be working.  As for inflation, it seems certain to surge as fuel bills rise.  Food prices are also destined to increase following extreme weather in both this country and abroad, crops having been decimated.  The report yesterday that increasing numbers of those in work are having to rely on housing benefit to keep a roof over their heads as rents continue to rise is another major worry.  Then there's the cuts still to come, the introduction of universal credit and the problems likely to surround that, as well as the abolition of disability living allowance and the roll out of its replacement, the personal independence payment.

All this, along with the opinion polls continuing to show Labour with a comfortable lead over the Conservatives, as well as making up the ground on which party is trusted most to run the economy, is helping to convince more than a few that this will be a single term government.  Indeed, when it's taken into account that the Tories will need to increase their share of the vote on what they achieved in 2010 (36%) in order to have any chance of forming a government, something there is no indication at the moment they are capable of doing, their chances of remaining in power seem all the more remote.  To strain the point slightly, it should be remembered that the Tories have now not won an election outright for 20 years, longer than the 18 years Labour spent in opposition.

The problem is that this could all too easily turn out to be wishful thinking.  The numbers on the TUC's march at the weekend, while still respectable at 100,000-150,000, were well down on the previous year's, suggesting there's either apathy or resentful acceptance even from those most well disposed to Labour's arguments on the failings of austerity.  This is backed up by the polling conducted by Peter Kellner for YouGov, which found that while the party has won back most of the support it lost to the Liberal Democrats (not surprising when there's now a grand choice of either Labour or the Greens for those of us on the centre-left and beyond) few on the centre or right have yet been convinced to come back.  Moreover, it would be foolish to rule out a Liberal Democrat revival, especially if the party moves to dump Nick Clegg prior to the election, or when their past voters realise they still loathe Labour and the Tories just as much as they always did.

At the moment, Labour is far too dependent on the economy continuing to flatline.  As right as Miliband and Balls are to resist the urge to set out their spending plans this far from an election, this isn't an excuse for the lack of policy initiative elsewhere, or the failure to flesh out what a "one nation" Labour Britain would look like.  The attitude of the party seems to be that the Tories are so incompetent and blundering that they'll effectively knock themselves out of contention, while the Liberal Democrats can be left to expire of their own accord.  This ignores the very real possibility that the problems in the Eurozone could be fixed, that a second term for Obama could result in a delay to America's own fiscal retention programme, or even, against all the odds, that the economy could start growing strongly of its own accord.  The Tories' taking of Blair's advice to start "reforming" immediately means that even if Labour win the next election, the NHS, schools and the welfare system will all be massively changed from how they were in 2010.

Should any of the above happen, the Tory message come 2015 will be simple and effective: do you really want to jeopardise all that's been achieved?  Even if it doesn't, the emphasis will undoubtedly be on how Labour can't be trusted on the economy, taxes or public spending, or for that matter on welfare or immigration.  Ed Miliband will be portrayed variously as a weak, capitulating Brownite, a dangerous left-winger, and as so devious he even stabbed his own brother in the front.  The party's link to the unions and their direct involvement in Ed's election will be played up for all its worth.  The party will also face being attacked from both sides, the coalition parties defending their achievements in government equally combatively.  The idea that Labour can stroll to victory just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

This isn't so much a warning just for Labour as it is for those of us who have already slipped into the comfortable belief that the additional cuts to benefits won't happen as the coalition will be gone by then.  One thing we can depend on is that the nasty party is back: the 2015 Tory manifesto will be both populist and punitive in equal measure, such has been the failure of Cameron's brand of "liberal" Conservatism, and this will in turn push Labour to the right.  Any Labour government seems better though at this moment in time; the disappointment and disenchantment can come later.

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