There has been a lot written in the past few days about how difficult it will be for Labour to win the next General Election in May 2020, with an article in the New Statesman claiming Labour would need a 13% lead in the polls to win a majority.
Yes, the scale of Labour’s defeat was disastrous for the party. They lost one of their biggest beasts until the next Labour safe by-election in Ed Balls. The situation in Scotland is unprecedented. The job faced by the next Labour leader, be it Burnham, Kendall, Cooper, Creagh or someone like Tris Hunt, is daunting to say the least.
But all is not lost. Those commentators who confidently predicted that there would be another coalition, right up to the close of polls, and even beyond the exit poll which ended up underestimating the scale of the Tory victory, are now busy implying that the Tories will be in perpetual Government, just like a 1980s rerun.
And every single one of them is wrong. Again. It was Harold Macmillan who coined the phrase “events, dear boy, events.” This Tory Government has a tiny majority – smaller than that of John Major between 1992 and 1997. There are hundreds of issues that will come up which could cause the Tories problems. Two of these “events” are already known and expected: Cameron will not be the Tory leader in 2020, and they have to get through a potentially disastrous Euro-referendum in 2017.
Taking the Euro-referendum first.
Cameron was seen by many Tories to have pulled off a stroke of genius when he promised an attempt to reform the EU followed by an In/Out referendum. This is potentially a massive banana skin for the Tories. Europe is the issue that Cameron has wanted to avoid ever since he became Leader. It is the issue that still tears the Tories asunder.
Yet between now and 2017 it will be all many in the Tory party wants to talk about. And as we get closer to the referendum that desire to focus on their differences will get stronger.
There are a number of potential scenarios, all of which offer huge problems for the Tories. Let’s assume for one second that Cameron manages to get detailed and substantial reform of the EU, including reform of fundamental principles such as the supremacy of the Courts of Justice of the EU or Freedom of Movement. He will then, presumably, go to the country proposing that we stay in the EU. That will make Nigel Farage, or whoever takes over from him if the coup plotters get their way, the head of the Out campaign. Many Tories in the Cabinet, and many more in the Parliamentary Party, and the voluntary party across the country, would have more sympathy with the Out campaign regardless of any reform that Cameron can deliver. So the Tories split, half the Cabinet campaigns with Nigel Farage, and UKIP get the sort of massive boost to their numbers that the SNP got after they lost their Independence referendum last year. A disaster for the Tories, because the country will not reward a Government so obviously split.
What about the reverse scenario. Cameron goes to Europe and comes back with absolutely nothing in reform. He’s already said he won’t go on until 2020, so potentially this could be the point when the Parliamentary Party says go, you failed to get EU reform, give a new leader the right to campaign on an Out ticket and they elect a new leader. There are a small number of the Parliamentary Party who do not believe we should leave the EU. These Tories campaign with Labour for an In vote – and the new Labour leader looks Prime Ministerial, reaching across the aisle, while the Tories look split to the nation. A disaster for the Tories, because the country will not reward a Government so obviously split.
I cannot think of a scenario under which the Tory party doesn’t split over the Euro-referendum. They may all be pretty united in the concept of having a referendum, but members of the Government have radically differing views on whether we should come out of the EU, and that’s before you add in any potential reforms.
Labour, on the other hand, will either benefit from pro-European Tories campaigning alongside their new leader, or from anti-European Tories campaigning alongside UKIP. In the first case they are shown to be the centrist party while the Tories are painted as extremists, in the second case many Tory members of Better Off Out hive off to UKIP. Either way, Labour will see a big advance because of this.
The other reason Labour shouldn’t despair is that Cameron will not be leading the Tory party come 2020. David Cameron is still more popular than the Conservative Party, some 10 years after he started the detoxification process of the Tory brand by hopping on a husky across the Arctic circle. It was long thought that this process could only be completed by a period in Government during which the Tories didn’t carve up the NHS and scrap all benefits. The need to deal with the deficit means that they are scrapping benefits and are being accused of carving up the NHS for the benefit of their posh mates. Some of that can be put to bed, but some of it will be exacerbated. In other words, Government is likely to retoxify the Tories for another new generation of voters, those who cannot remember Mrs Thatcher or even a majority Tory Government – it is 18 years since Labour kicked John Major out of Downing Street.
Without Cameron, the Tory Party will be damaged, at least in the short term. Now it is possible that Boris Johnson wins that election, and he is popular in parts of the country, but there is a difference between being a faintly comic figure who people feel is a bit of a joker and electing him as our next Prime Minister. George Osborne is, if anything, posher than Cameron, but also more metropolitan liberal elite, and is said to be the man who persuaded Cameron of the need to reform the Tories. Could he become Cameron Mk II? Possibly. And there are wild card potential leaders – like Education Secretary Nicky Morgan or Business Secretary Sajid Javid – who we know little about at the moment.
But whoever Labour pick as their next leader on September 12th, they will not be facing the same situation in 2020 as they face now. And they will not be facing David Cameron.
All is not lost for Labour. Both they, and the Tories, should remember that.