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Where's the ambition?...And what's the plan?

By Paul Goodman
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Camerons thinking copyEd Miliband has broken all the conventional rules of opposition: neutralise your Party's weaknesses, work hard early to make an impression on the electorate, appeal to floating voters.  These rules are far from being perfect or complete, but Labour's leader has done himself no good by breaking them.  He has got himself up a gum tree, and has no idea how to climb down.  His dismal summer continues today with a poll in the Daily Mirror, which finds that a third of Labour voters believe he should quit.  His strategy seems to be to get the party's vote up to about 36 per cent by adding anti-austerity voters to Labour's core supporters.  This is the opposite of Tony Blair's plan to build the biggest electoral tent possible - one that won him three successive elections.  Looking at Miliband, the question is: where's the ambition?

The same question could not be asked, for roughly the first half of this Parliament, of David Cameron.  Having failed to win a majority in 2010, he immediately set about creating the conditions for one in 2015 - which, furthermore, would make it more likely for him then to win further terms in office.  The core of his plan was to cull the electoral advantage that Labour gains from the distribution of the vote.  The means of effecting it was to reduce the number of MPs, a reform which would have brought with it the public benefit of cutting the costs of politics.  A deal was struck with the Liberal Democrats whereby they would support the move if the Conservatives backed a referendum on AV.  Readers of this site know what followed: the latter delivered their side of the bargain, and the former did not.  Ever since Cameron's scheme failed, the question for him has been: what's the plan now - that is, the plan to deliver a Tory majority?

The Prime Minister's preparations for stitching together a second coalition with the Liberal Democrats are understandable in the context of an electoral system that works to make such a majority a very tall order.  But Conservative MPs, party members and voters are bound to ask: has it come to this?  Are the ambitions of "the natural party of government" - the oldest in the world - now so shrunken?  Cameron has a duty to his party to leave it in the best possible for whoever succeeds him, as well as every incentive to find a way of getting back into the game of gaining a majority.  Obviously, this is not reducible simply to neutralising Labour's advantage at the polls.  Strategy and policy must be right.  Since the Prime Minister's conference speech last October, the signs have been better.  Under Grant Shapps, CCHQ's campaigning has been sharper.  On welfare reform particularly, the Government has begun to present the conservatism for Bolton West that can keep and gain votes in the midlands and northern marginals.

Above all, the economy is recovering (though it is far from reformed, and the deficit remains high).  More lastingly for the long-term, Michael Gove's academies programme, Iain Duncan Smith's ambitious universal credit, the Andrew Lansley-driven return of commissioning powers to doctors and Theresa May's delivery of police commissioners are all signs of the most radical programme of public service reform in living memory.  But all of this is not enough to offset Labour's advantage, or to lay the foundations for future Tory majorities.  Since reducing the size of the Commons is now out of the question, the Prime Minister must look elsewhere.  If Scotland votes "No", its relationship with England is the obvious place to start.  The present settlement, whereby Scotland's MPs can vote on England's business but not vice-versa, is both unjust in itself and advantageous to Labour - two reasons for Downing Street to start planning to correct it.


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