Britain’s Conservative party arrives in Manchester for its annual conference ostensibly in much better condition than seemed possible several years ago. David Cameron won an overall majority in May, defying the pollsters and pundits, along with the expectations of many senior Tories who claim now that they knew all along victory was theirs. If they had really known, then a doubtful George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, would not on election day have pledged to kiss the party’s election guru, the Australian Lynton Crobsy, if the Tories triumphed. Cameron and Osborne have much to thank Crosby for. He was the architect of their campaign, which produced the first overall majority for the party since 1992.
But above all, it was David Cameron’s victory. Faced with the possibility of being the man who was Tory leader for a decade without winning a general election outright, he did what he is often accused of not doing. He listened, to Crosby and others plotting a path to a majority. The result was an approach in the campaign best regarded as a fusion. The focus on aspiration and security that many of his critics felt had been lacking from the 2010 campaign was brought to the fore and fused with his modernising approach. It was a potent electoral combination.
Since the election, it has kept on getting better for the Tory party. Since May, their opponents – in England at least – have outdone themselves in terms of muppetry. Cameron and Osborne could not have written the script. You couldn’t make it up, as they used to say in Fleet Street.
Rather than learning the proper lesson of the general election, in which swing voters made it clear how they view the world, Labour has decided to have a tedious and unproductive conversation with itself rather than the country. It elected a terrible leader who will not press the nuclear button, supported the aims of the IRA, thinks that money grows on magic money trees and is embarrassing to watch. “You don’t get the new politics,” he snarled at a reporter who asked him a legitimate question at Labour conference in Brighton this week. I don’t know why the view seems to be that Jeremy Corbyn is charming. He looks utterly charmless. Worse, I cannot avoid the thought that the consensus is wrong in another respect. It is said that he is a highly intelligent man. This seems unlikely. He sounds like someone who has not had an original thought on economics since 1983 and he is so rigidly wrong on all manner of subjects – and in such an uncurious way – that I suspect we are about to discover he is simply not the sharpest tool in the box.
All this is great for the Tories, and there is the added bonus that UKIP is in trouble as feuds break out – again – and the party’s leader kills, slowly, what he created. What a psychological study.
But (you knew there would be a but) all is not quite as straightforward for the Tories as it might seem this autumn.
During the general election, David Cameron did something daft. He said that he would not fight another election. It is to his credit that he does not want to go on and on, and his family’s desire to get him back before he starts to think the country cannot survive without him (a condition affecting too many leaders) is admirable, of course. He is well-adjusted and British politics is better for it.
But pre-announcing a departure in a parliamentary system is usually a bad idea because it introduces extra uncertainty and instability. Ambitious colleagues still smile and nod at the leader, although they are already thinking about life after Cameron and working out how best to position themselves. The gravitional pull he exerts is weaker than it used to be.
Cameron’s chosen successor is, naturally, his friend George Osborne. It is good to want one’s friends to get on in life, rather than being consumed with jealousy. But it is far from clear, as yet, that Osborne is the best candidate to become the next Prime Minister, although the rebuilding of his reputation, since the depths of 2012, has been highly impressive to watch. In the words of one of his team: “He is the most interesting politician around.”
Not withstanding that, serious doubts remain about his electoral appeal. Not a problem if his opponent is Jeremy Corbyn, say his supporters, and while that is true, it does presume a static situation between now and 2019, the likely year of Cameron’s departure.
To state the obvious: a lot can happen in four years.
The economy may get from here to there without any reverses, but the Tories will need to be lucky. History shows too that Tory governments have a habit of engineering or being hit by a smash after winning elections. Look at 1970, 1987 and 1992.
Then there is the EU. The Cameron/Osborne strategy is predicated on a vote to stay in, an outcome which looks a lot less certain than it did before the migration crisis worsened this Summer. The polls show a race that is open, in which the status quo crowd start with advantages of incumbency and voter inertia, yet if Out/Leave can contain the threat of UKIP and Nigel Farage – who appal many non-UKIP voters – it will be winnable for the withdrawlists.
“But… but… David and George would have to resign if that happened,” a Cameroon said to me recently. Quite probably, yes. Which makes their judgment on whether they have secured enough in renegotiation by the time they press the button, and lead In/Remain, one of the dicier calls they have to make.
Get ready, too, for another Scottish referendum in 2019, the SNP leadership’s best opportunity for a second try at winning independence. Sturgeon is a smart strategist – much more nimble than her predecessor Alex Salmond – and she will know that the wide coalition that is the SNP, spanning hard leftists and tartan former Tories, cannot hold together indefinitely. The prime spot is 2019, if the Tories are choosing a new leader and Labour is still a mess. She can say then to Scottish voters: Boris Johnson or George Osborne? Really? Do you want the English Tories for ever? Finish off the Union. Do it, you know you want to.
There remains another possibility. That Cameron’s successor is not Osborne or Boris Johnson and someone else emerges from the ranks. In that Westminster way, Boris Johnson is being written off already. He has had a poor six months and his campaign was predicated on Cameron falling short and landing in another coalition or out of office, at which point the blond bombshell would be sent for. Don’t dismiss Boris, however. He has charisma, an optimistic Reaganite outlook and a devilish propensity for doing in opponents with a wicked turn of phrase. Look out, George.
Next week, the Tories will have a party and they are entitled to it. The media, hemmed in during the campaign by Tory media management, will also, I suspect be up for its own party, involving much mischief on topics such as the leadership question, Boris v Osborne and Europe. Beyond that, any idea that a long period of Osbornite hegemony automatically stretches out before Britain is false. In the next four years the UK will decide whether to break with the EU and Scotland may decide not to remain part of the UK. In the long story of the UK’s coming apart post-Second World War and its hesitant immersion in the EU project, we are about to start the next, fascinating, potentially decisive chapter.