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Why Cameron shouldn't and won't try to force a general election soon

by Paul Goodman

Let's imagine that David Cameron - emboldened by a "No" AV vote next Thursday, a LibDem collapse in the local elections, and the remarkably buoyant Conservative poll ratings - decides that he wanted an election, and Conservative Cabinet members agree.  Let's furthermore assume that Buckingham Palace consents to grant him one - not an assumption that should be made lightly, since the Government has a emphatic majority of over 80 in the Commons.  It might well be inclined instead to send for Ed Miliband, and ask him in effect if he could form the "rainbow coalition" government that Britain was briefly threatened with last May.

But, as I say, let's suppose - as some are speculating - that an election is called in June or the autumn.  It would be fought under the present constituency boundaries.  This means that the Party would need, as it did last May, a lead of between eight and ten per cent over Labour to win even a ricepaper-thin majority.  Almost a year ago, Gordon Brown gained some 258 seats on 29 per cent of the vote.  It's worth remembering that if Labour had won, say, ten seats more at our expense, that rainbow coalition might have been a going concern.  According to UK Polling Report, Labour's present poll average now comes in at 41 per cent.

Sure, Miliband isn't ready for a contest, Labour is starved of cash, and some of these poll points would melt during the heat of an election campaign.  But it strains credulity to suggest that all of them would.  A snap poll would thus produce either an overall Labour majority (such is the distribution of the vote under the present boundaries), or - more likely - a hung Parliament.  And in a new Commons with no overall majority, one could kiss goodbye to a second blue-yellow Coalition: having being ditched after less than a year, the Liberal Democrats would be unwilling to trot again up the aisle with the Tories.

So even a hung Parliament would mean a Miliband premiership, and a return to the purity of opposition which we enjoyed for thirteen years.  Please don't insist that in such an election we'd win enough Liberal Democrat seats to get us over the winning line.  Yes, we'd win some seats from the Liberal Democrats.  But no, not enough to give us a majority - since, on any reasonable reading of the system and the polls, we'd lose others to Labour.  There's little point in rolling up the yellows at one end if we're simultaneously rolled up by the reds at the other.

Now think further about the likely voter response to a snap election.  As Tim said earlier this week, there's no reason to believe that the electorate enjoys unnecessary polls, to put it mildly.  Since the Government has the strong majority in the Commons to which I referred, voters wouldn't look kindly on a Prime Minister who bothered them for no substantial reason.  Some Cabinet Ministers would probably agree, and their view would doubtless find its way into the media, which might well share it.  And MPs and activists wouldn't be straining at the leash to get out on the doorsteps - not for a second month running, certainly.

Defeatism?  The plain fact is that it's now almost 20 years since we won an election - and that by a small majority.  Like the voice after the Charge of the Light Brigade, we can be "ready go again" under the present boundaries.  Or we can angle to fight under more helpful ones.  The seat reduction will be complete by the end of 2013.  Of course, the Coalition may collapse before then.  Tory backbenchers may bring it down over concessions to the Liberal Democrats prefigured in the Coalition Agreement.  Nick Clegg may be challenged and defeated for his Party's leadership.  Or, more likely, some unforeseen crisis will sink the Coalition.

But on balance, it will probably survive for a while yet, largely because the Liberal Democrats have even less to gain from an early election than we do.  There's a case for arguing that the Government's policies on the EU, crime, and human rights are too yellow to be tolerated.  And a counter-case for holding, as I do, that the core of Coalition policy on deficit reduction, welfare and schools reform and localism makes the enterprise worthwhile.   But either way, an election before the boundary review is effected would be almost certain to send us back into opposition.  Which is why Cameron shouldn't and won't manoevre to call one.


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