5 Challenges for David Cameron1
May 10, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
1) Delivering a manifesto that may have been designed for coalition – I wasn’t there when the manifesto was written obviously, but I do wonder which bits of it would have been marked with an asterisk saying ‘to be negotiated away’ in a coalition or dropped as too difficult in minority government. The Tories now have to achieve their central aim of eradicating the deficit whilst instituting a new £1 million inheritance tax threshold for couples, an £8bn increase in the NHS budget by 2020, the sale under ‘right-to-buy’ of 800,000 housing association properties at a discount, remembering to compensate the housing associations, the raising of the personal income tax threshold to £12500 and the higher rate tax threshold to £50,000, plus not raising rail fares by more than inflation and providing 30 hours of free childcare for three and four year olds. The £30bn for that has to be raised without raising VAT, income tax or national insurance, which Cameron pledged to legislate not to do. The cuts that will need to be applied to do that will hurt, although they should be spread out more, and there is also economic growth forecast which will help with tax revenues. This is before we even bring in the instablility for the economy and investment of us not knowing whether we will still be in the EU.
2) Keeping the party together over the EU – There will be an IN/OUt referendum by the end of 2017. Cameron will want to get that over with as soon as possible. To that end he has appointed George Osborne to lead the negotiations with the EU on what changes might be made to our relationship with it. Tory MPs are already making varying demands, including the ability to veto EU laws in our Parliament as well as changes to the freedom of movement of workers. In a way, should Greece leave there may need to be a Treaty change anyway, which opens the way for the Tories to negotiate a proper two tier system, with the UK on a second tier in which it loses less sovereignty. Cameron will want to be able to go to the country with tangible wins in the negotiation, although he will be aware that to some of his party, nothing will ever be good enough. He might also want to give his MPs, including Cabinet Ministers a free vote, which will stop resignations. One thing has helped Cameron, which is that the option of defecting to UKIP now looks far literally more reckless, after how Mark Reckless lost his seat by over 7000 votes.
3) Managing Scotland – In some ways, the SNP come to Westminster with a very strong position in that they have 56 MPs and can claim to represent the interests of Scotland far more than any Scottish Labour MP was ever allowed to do. In other ways they are weakened, because there is no anti-Tory majority, and the Conservatives may politely suggest that an entire campaign based upon hatred of them may have been inadvisable, should they now want something. In truth something will need to be done about the situation where those 56 MPs can vote on devolved areas like the NHS in Scotland but also on areas like the NHS in England that doesn’t actually affect them (although since every penny spent on England affects spending on Scotland you could argue against that point). Cameron could offer them full fiscal responsibility, and watch as they struggle to meet their aims with a much reduced tax intake. But he might want to wait and see how the new SNP intake behave in Parliament. Some of them, as I will write later this week, may not be easy to control, and have Scottish independence as a far greater priority than anything else.
4) Fixing the Tories’ image problem – There’s no point being smug about how many people, in the privacy of the ballot box, voted Tory when the opinions pols were suggesting they wouldn’t. The question to ask is why are they so shy to say they support the Conservatives? Why is the Tory brand so toxic that people won’t admit to it. Even when they were genuinely floating voters, why we’re so many people going to the ballot box as ‘reluctant’ Tories, in that they just put a cross in as they had to reluctantly conclude there were no alternatives they could trust? Cameron has said he would like to govern as ‘One Nation’, but even people who put him back in Number 10 don’t really consider themselves part of that nation. They much think about why.
5) Leaving at the right time – Having received a mandate greater than he could have dreamed of, Cameron is stuck with the memory of him saying that he wouldn’t fight a third term. Or did he? He said that he didn’t think it was a good idea, but he didn’t actually commit not to. I would agree with him that it is in their third term that Prime Ministers really lose their popularity, and that definitely applied to Blair and Thatcher. So let’s say he does leave. He has to time it right, and certainly a successful renegotiation of our relationship with the EU and vote to stay in it might be one of those times. Otherwise it would probably be one year before the election. I’m not sure Boris Johnson has done himself many favours in this campaign, particularly his shambolic appearance debating with Ed Miliband on Andrew Marr’s sofa. Cameron may want to wait awhile until some genuine contenders get into place.
On point 4) Fixing the Tories’ image problem: surely most of them will say “we won – what problem?” But Tony Blair’s insight today offers Labour some hope, “The country defaulted to the Tories. It didn’t desire them. That explains the difference between the polls and the result.”
There are lots of reasons for the result – god knows how many thousands of column inches even over the last day and a half have offered explanations – and surely it would be stupid to put it down to just one thing – but I do think the big picture in terms of seats lost and gained can be simplified into 2 or 3 areas: Labour losing seats to the SNP and the Lib Dems losing seats to the Tories (the third being Labour’s inability to gain any seats from the Tories outside of London). I’ve been saying that the Scottish factor had a huge impact on England – and on the radio just now I’ve heard two people in Twickenham saying that they like Vince Cable, they voted Lib Dem last time, but they voted Tory tactically this time because they were scared of the SNP having influence over Labour in a hung Parliament. I heard the same thing so many times in Finchley and Golders Green – “love your candidate, want to vote for her, but scared of SNP and don’t see Miliband as a PM”
So I would say that not many people positively chose the Conservatives (among all the hysteria and surprise because the neck and neck opinion polls were so wrong, let’s not forget that Cameron has won a smaller majority than Wilson had in 1974) – and if Labour can sort its act out there is hope for 2020.