Perhaps it is not surprising that so little proper attention has been paid to David Cameron’s victory over Ed Miliband in May. It happened it; it was reported; and then it was banked by observers as though it had been expected all along. Perhaps us commentators and pollsters, who generally judged that he could not win outright, were keen to move on, lest any readers labouring under the illusion of pundit omnipotence noticed the mistakes. I didn’t predict a Tory overall majority, and in the final weeks of the campaign thought that the Conservative message on economic security and the threat of a Miliband government at the mercy of the Scottish Nationalists would get the Tories over the 300 seats mark but not much beyond it, and certainly not above the magic 326 mark.
But then the Tory high command didn’t see it either. Only Lynton Crosy, the punchy Australian election guru hired to run the campaign, stuck with the idea from the previous year that swing voters were calmly coming to the conclusion that this time it had to be the Conservatives. That is what happened.
At the root of the Tory victory was a bold decision made by Cameron several years out. The Conservative leader has a stubborn streak, and after he made a mess of the 2010 election he did not want an inquest into how a shambles of a campaign had failed to beat Gordon Brown outright. This time, to his credit, he adapted. Not only was Crosby called in, Cameron blended a message about aspiration and security that could appeal to different parts of the Tory tribe and crucial swing voters.
There is never any shortage of commentary on Cameron – from me included – when he gets it wrong. The mess he is in on the EU, for example, may be the worst scrape of his career as Tory leader and anyone telling you the referendum campaign will definitely result in a victory for In/Remain is making a premature call. The campaign will be a messy mid-term affair against the backdrop of a migration meltdown. The most likely outcome is an In vote, as voters fear dramatic change with economic implications. Even so, Out is going to be well-staffed and well-funded, potentially with more big (cabinet) names on its side than is envisaged now. Equally, anyone banking on George Osborne as a sure-fire bet to become Cameron’s successor as Prime Minister is being hasty. Tory leadership races are brutal affairs involving treachery and intense scrutiny. In these battles, the front-runners tend to lose, no matter how much scheming they have done in advance. Ask Michael Heseltine.
But that – the EU referendum anyway – is for next year. It is only fair to to point out this week, with 2015 coming to an end, that Cameron – not Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP, or Angela Merkel – was the big winner of the year.
His success also illustrated the enduring truth that successful parties in a democracy are in all but exceptional circumstances a coalition of interests. In the case of the SNP the coalition – from Trots to Tartan Tories – is so wide that the leadership has to impose iron discipline. Disagreeing with the leadership is banned. Really.
That is taking it too far, of course. Some dissent within parties is essential, otherwise leaders and the Executive have excessive power. But without cooperation and a dose of pragmatic realism those parties end up speaking to the angrier parts of their base, which is rarely a recipe for victory. That means, pretty much unfailingly, that the other side wins, as Labour in the UK under Jeremy Corbyn is about to find out.
The Republican party in the US seems further away than ever right now from grasping this basic fact of life. As Tim Montgomerie made clear in his latest CapX piece, the dirtiest word in American politics is compromise. Instead, the Republicans are putting on the most extraordinary race in modern times, and that is even before a single vote has been cast. On a tide of populist anger, Donald Trump is triumphant, although he can – and must – be stopped.
The spectacle is both riveting and horrifying. My hope, as someone who wants a successful and strong United States, is that a more sensible Republican nominee will emerge to do what needs doing, which is present a coherent, credible challenge to the Clinton dynasty. Marco Rubio seems best able to do that if his party sees sense.
What is strange about this American campaign is that in a party – the Republican party – where the question is so often “what would Ronald Reagan do?” there seems to be hardly any recognition of how he won. Yes, he energised the base and won over evangelical voters concerned about the disintegration of the family. His greatest achievement, however, was to pull off something more difficult. He got disillusioned Democrats and middle of the road voters who wanted optimism and a better economy to vote for him. That is what it comes down to again. Do Republicans want to win in 2016 and have some (not all) of their desires fulfilled, or would they rather spend four years shouting at the television every time President Hillary Clinton is on TV? We’ll have the answer by this time next year.