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Lord Ashcroft: Don't bet on a Tory victory but don't rule it out

LABy Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC.

Every pundit has a theory about the next election, and the New Year has brought a flurry of them. Some believe a Conservative majority is impossible; others think it is the most likely outcome.

Unlike the commentators, the bookies have to back their theories with cash. Their expectations are clear. For them, an overall majority for Labour is the most likely result in May 2015 – Ladbrokes will give you only 11/8, and Paddy Power 5/4 on this outcome. A hung parliament looks to them less probable than a Labour victory, with the two firms offering 13/8 and 7/4 respectively on no party winning outright.

The odds on a Conservative majority look comparatively remote.  Paddy Power will give you 11/4, and Ladbrokes a tasty 3/1 on such a result. As far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned, Ladbrokes expect their most likely haul to be between 21 and 40 seats – and the odds show they believe Nick Clegg’s party is more likely to end up with fewer than 20 than to win more than 40.

With the polls as they are, and political prospects as they currently seem, it would be hard to argue that the bookmakers are seriously misguided. Any realistic survey of the political landscape surely shows the odds are against the Tories metaphorically as well as literally.

The consistent double-digit Labour lead is an obvious place to start. It may be lower than that enjoyed at this stage in the cycle by previous Oppositions that went on to win, but that need not matter. As I said at the start of Project Blueprint in 2011, the combination of Labour’s traditional support and left-leaning former Liberal Democrats means that Ed Miliband ought to be able to put together 40 per cent of the vote without getting out of bed.

Moreover, the impending demise of the boundary review means he could still win with a smaller vote share than the Tories could. The size of the lead the Conservatives need for a one-seat majority is the subject of intense psephological debate – but whether it is four, seven or eleven points, the scale of the movement required is clearly evident.

David Cameron needs to expand the Conservative voting coalition: hold onto the voters who supported the party in 2010, win back those who have defected, keep those who have joined, and persuade those who are open to considering the party but are not yet ready to say they would vote for it tomorrow. Phew!

This unenviable task is made harder by the fact that the modernisation of the party remains incomplete, in the sense that too many people whose support it needs mistrust its motives, do not think it shares their priorities, and do not think it embodies the values it says it does. This applies particularly to those who thought about voting Tory in 2010 but decided against it. While they trust Cameron and Osborne more than Miliband and Balls to manage the economy, they do not think the Conservatives stand for fairness or opportunity.

But it also applies to many of the defectors, who voted Conservative in 2010 but say they would not do so in an election tomorrow. It is often supposed that most of these have gone to UKIP, but in fact only a third of them have done so: Tory defectors are more likely to have moved to Labour or to say they do not know how they will vote. By no means are they all traditional Conservatives repelled by Cameronism, whatever may be argued to the contrary by some recalcitrant backbenchers.

That is not to say that UKIP is irrelevant. But an even bigger danger would be for the Conservative Party to misdiagnose the problem and the factors behind it, supposing that it could win people back through a greater emphasis on Europe combined with signals that we share the disgruntlement with modern Britain that motivates many of UKIP’s supporters. As my research published last month showed, this would not only fail on its own terms but end any prospect of attracting people who have previously voted Labour or Liberal Democrat.

The thing that most unites those who have switched to the Conservatives since the last election is that they trust the Tories more than Labour to run the economy, and respect Cameron for sticking to tough decisions. But those willing to take unpleasant medicine for the good of the country constitute a limited market. It takes a very public spirited voter to support the wider national good if he feels he has personally lost out from the decisions of a government, or would personally benefit from a different one. With more – most – of the cuts still to come, the number of people feeling they have gone too far and too fast (that is, have come a bit too close to home) can only grow. There is little understanding of the end to which austerity is the means, the picture of a better Britain for which the Conservatives will be asking people to vote.

So: Labour need fewer votes than the Tories for a majority and it will be easier for them to find them; the boundary review that could have helped is probably history; the perceptions that put people off the Conservatives in 2010 and before are as powerful as ever; the problem of defectors threatens to tempt the party towards bad mistakes; and the thing that best characterises such converts as the party has won is their Spartan embrace of harsh measures – suggesting that there cannot be many more waiting in the wings. For the time being, the bookies’ judgment looks sound.

But politics can change, and so can the odds. As I found in Project Red Alert last November, Labour faces a strategic dilemma of its own: many of the new supporters it has picked up since the election hope for a return to the days of lavish public spending, while other potential Labour voters fear that, back in government, the party would once again spend more than the country can afford. Sooner or later, one of these groups is going to be disappointed. Try as he might, Ed Miliband will struggle to postpone this reckoning until after the election.

The Lib Dems will almost certainly do better on the day than their poll numbers currently suggest, since local factors and popular MPs are a more important part of their appeal. This is another reason why Labour’s vote share is soft.

Despite the gloom, the Conservatives remain more trusted than Labour to run the economy. This is not an election winner in itself: the Tories were ahead on economic management right up until the Labour landslide of 1997. But the economy will be a central issue at the next election in a way that it was not when Tony Blair swept to power, and by adopting Tory spending plans, he and Gordon Brown had neutralised fears of Labour profligacy in a way that Miliband and Balls have not. Voters now face a clear choice of economic programmes: one that sounds intuitively right to many, however much they dislike it, and one that seems to promise less debt if only we would borrow more. When it comes to making the decision, voters may well opt to see through what has been started.

The approaching need to make a decision will also sharpen the contrast between Cameron and Miliband. The Prime Minister’s ratings are not what they were, and Miliband has grown into the job more convincingly than many expected. But Cameron remains ahead overall, and when it comes to measures like representing Britain abroad or taking the right decisions even when they are unpopular, Miliband is scarcely in the game. This will matter more as the choice becomes more real.

With two years and five months to go, there is too much we don’t know: how the dynamics of the coalition will play out, what will happen if the Lib Dems panic, the pace of economic recovery, developments in the Eurozone, the contents of the PM’s long-trailed “Europe speech” and the reaction to it, whether or not Labour and the Lib Dems will continue to vote tactically for each other, the direction of the Conservative campaign under its controversial new management… and they are just a few of the known unknowns.

As was the case with Obama and Romney, historical precedents can always be deployed to show that neither side can possibly win. I have never bet money on politics and I am not about to start now. The bookies know what they are doing. Yet in a couple of years, I hope the chance to treble your money on a Tory majority may look in hindsight like an attractive proposition. But don’t bet on it!

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