Conservative Diary

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Why David Cameron may be whistling the theme tune from The Great Escape

by Paul Goodman

It could all be very different for David Cameron this morning.  No, not in the local elections: what happened in them was roughly what was always going to happen.  Rather, in relation to this afternoon and evening's later and even bigger event.  It's hard now to remember that, not all that long ago, the Yes to AV campaign led in the polls.  Its No counterpart had a plan, but was short of the backing and money to deliver it.  Downing Street seemed to be sleeping.  Conservative donors were sitting on their hands.  The Yes campaign was bringing out its celebrities.  There was even talk in some quarters that AV would deliver semi-permanent blue-yellow realignment - so best for Tories to drop their dream of a majority Government. A No vote in yesterday's referendum was not inevitable.

It isn't so now, either - but, this morning, the Yes campaign is out and about conceding defeat and beginning a blame game.  Were matters otherwise, the buzz and chatter on the blogs and twitter would be about Cameron the lost leader, a danger that threatened him not all that long ago.  Which Conservative MP, it would be asked, would be first over the top?  Who would demand "a listening Downing Street"?  Would an officer of the 1922 Committee join in, or even the whole executive?  Which Cabinet Minister would break ranks to warn of the need for "collective leadership'?  Would a reshuffle be forced on the Prime Minister that wasn't of his own choosing?  Would Graham Brady, the '22's Chairman, start getting the letters which, if received in large enough number, trigger a leadership election?

During recent weeks, questions like this have certainly been sketched out around the coffee tables of Portcullis House, and will also have been whispered behind hands in the Commons tea room.  But this morning, they are fading away like a month-ago's cherry blossom.  Number 10 woke up.  Donors were contacted.  Money for the No campaign began to flow in.  It at last had the resources to put its strategy into effect.  The polls began to turn.  David Cameron rolled up his sleeves and got out on the stump.  His attacks on AV helped shift Conservative voters to the No camp.  This morning, it scarcely matters to what degree belief in first past the post, attachment to party unity, the drive to self-preservation or the will to power mixed in his mind.  What's important is that Britain seems to have voted No to AV.  If that's so, the Prime Minister can legitimately claim a big slice of the credit, which his Party should acknowledge.  

Lucky, lucky David Cameron.  Lucky that David Davis fought an underwhelming leadership campaign.  Lucky to become Conservative leader when he did, towards the end of a governing cycle for Labour.  Lucky, in all likelihood, that Gordon Brown didn't call an election in the autumn of 2007.  Lucky - having not won last year's election - to gain enough seats to leave his party as the only viable coalition partner for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.  Lucky that his Deputy's volte-face on tuition fees helped to doom the Yes to AV campaign.  Lucky to have no obvious Cabinet successor.  Lucky to face no clear right-wing leadership from the Tory backbenches.  It's too early for the Prime Minister to be opening the bottles of champagne that he's fearful of being seen with in public - and luck, of course, can turn. But he could be forgiven, as he settles back to congratulate victorious local Conservative candidates, for whistling the theme tune from "The Great Escape" - as below.


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