The Tories are evens to get an overall majority in 2020. Why? asks Alastair Meeks
We’ve been here before.Â We languish under a Conservative government with a tiny majority, distracted by a frenzied and incomprehensible internal argument being conducted in raised voices over the EU (a subject about which the public largely do not care), staggering from wholly avoidable crisis to wholly avoidable crisis.Â The public rightly see the Conservative party as horribly divided.Â Disquiet is growing about their basic competence.
The last time we were here, in the mid-1990s, the Conservatives found themselves pulverised at the next general election.Â It took them a decade even to become competitive again.
Yet the markets are clearly expecting something radically different this time.Â The Conservatives are evens to get an overall majority next time, with no overall majority available at 7/4 on Betfair and 6/4 elsewhere.Â Why?
Lots of different reasons why the Conservatives are bombproof next time round have been floated but they fall into three broad categories.Â Let’s look at each in turn.
The state of Labour
Whenever any discussion takes place about why the Conservatives, despite all their troubles, look set to cruise through the next election, sooner or later the subject of Labour’s own chaos comes up.Â Jeremy Corbyn has not exactly yet achieved universal acclaim as a natural leader and a large part of his Parliamentary party is in more or less open mutiny against him (or, as the leader’s own camp would put it, “core group negative” or “hostile”).Â Many Conservatives believe that they could put any of their MPs blindfolded against him and still romp to victory.
That is far too complacent.Â Conservatives seem to have forgotten that last year they won only 37% of the vote against an opposition leader who did not impress the public.Â They achieved that unexceptional tally with a popular and charismatic leader and a broadly united party campaigning on a disciplined (if uninspiring) prospectus.Â At the next election, they will have a new leader of what may well be a divided and indisciplined party.Â In 2020, the Labour party may look in worse shape than in 2015, but so will the Conservatives.Â It is far from clear that the deterioration on the red side will look worse than that on the blue side.
Moreover, it overlooks the following points.
- Jeremy Corbyn may be replaced. Right now that doesn’t look too likely but you never know.Â Almost any other Labour MP will impress as leader by comparison.Â If the Conservatives look tired, feckless, divided and crazy, that new leader would probably get a remarkably good honeymoon.
- Labour aren’t the only moving part. It is quite possible that the referendum will give a shot in the arm to UKIP, who will be looking to hoover up Leave supporters who feel uncatered to by the major parties.Â Even if UKIP don’t break the mould, there is no particular reason to assume that the Conservatives would be less affected by this than Labour.
- It’s entirely possible that the fallout from the Labour civil war or the Conservative referendum feuds may result in one or both parties fracturing in some way. The consequences of such a fracturing are hard to predict.
In short, if the Conservatives can’t get their act together, their divisions, their lack of direction and their lack of competence are likely to hurt them in the ballot box.
The referendum will be over on 23 June
Yes, the referendum will be over on 23 June.Â It seems unlikely, however, that the arguments within the Conservative party will end on that date.Â If Remain wins â€“ by whatever margin â€“ a substantial part of the Conservative Leavers are going to remain incandescent with their leaders over their conduct in the campaign.Â Rightly or wrongly, they are going to be convinced that they were cheated and will be planning how best to sabotage government policy on the EU.Â The government has a majority of just 12.Â The number of irreconcilable MPs far exceeds 6 (the number is probably closer to 60).Â If Remain wins, we can expect a guerrilla campaign by the Conservative right throughout this Parliament.Â The divisions will not heal.
If Leave wins, the government then needs to decide what comes next.Â The first “next” will almost certainly be the resignation and replacement of David Cameron and George Osborne, whose authority would have evaporated.Â That would be the easy bit.Â The next “next” would be to establish what to do about the exit negotiations.Â Since the Leave side has not put together a prospectus, mutually contradictory reasons have been given for voting for Leave.Â A choice would need to be made between prioritising freedom of trade and prioritising restricting freedom of movement.Â That choice will split the Conservatives afresh between economic Thatcherites and social Conservatives.Â That split could be more agonising than the existing one.Â The Conservatives have split twice before over free trade.Â Could they make it a hat trick?
Either way, the Conservatives are going to carry on quarrelling for the foreseeable future.Â Worse than that, the public are going to carry on noticing.
Many Conservatives gleefully note that the Boundary Commission is due to draw up new boundaries for a smaller 600 seat Parliament, believing that this is likely to favour them substantially, particularly given that it will be based on the new electoral register (which is thought to have fewer registered voters in previously Labour areas).Â So it might, if it happens.Â But the government needs to get the relevant legislation through Parliament.Â It has a wafer thin majority in the House of Commons and is a minority in the House of Lords.Â If Conservative backbenchers of a right wing Leave persuasion feel that the boundary changes might be used for internal party control purposes, they might sabotage the legislation.Â The House of Lords is likely to reject the legislation so the House of Commons will need two bites at the cherry.Â There has to be a substantial chance this legislation fails.
Conservative divisions aren’t going away.Â As a result, they are likely to remain directionless and ministers will be distracted from their day jobs, increasing the chances of further mistakes and adding to the appearance of incompetence.Â With a wafer thin majority that may well not be bolstered by boundary changes, the Conservatives look nothing like an even money bet for an overall majority.Â Lay them, or better still take the 6/4 on no overall majority (Labour might get an overall majority but if that comes into play there will be time to rebalance your book later).Â Those odds should be at least the other way around.