What are the Tories up to? Here's what I think. I think they're planning a coup.
The polls really haven't moved for the whole election period, in fact since the beginning of the year, with the Tories and Labour stuck on roughly 34% each. UKIP has been on 14% for a while; the Lib Dems have fluctuated a bit but seem stuck on 9% in the main. The SNP stepped into most of Labour's Scottish seats soon after the referendum and has not budged. Unless the polls are wildly wrong and, like 1992, the electorate are just embarrassed to tell pollsters who they're going to vote for, we're heading for a hung parliament.
It's puzzled me why the Tory campaign has been so lacklustre. It just feels directionless, badly thought-out, panicky. As I wrote before, they seem to have relied on Ed Miliband as being useless, which inconveniently he's turned out not to be. When that failed, they started promising the earth: £8bn a year for the NHS (where from?) and Cameron spent ages humming and hawing about whether he'd attend the leadership debates. Cameron's had a couple of pretty idiotic gaffes (forgetting which team he support, confusing country and his career) and done some rather embarrassing stump speeches in his shirt-sleeves pretending to be 'pumped up' by the election. There have been no eye-catching initiatives, no memorable clashes. It's been a terrible campaign.
True, Labour's not been great either. Both parties have been neurotically risk-averse which means there have been very few meetings with the public, very few big events that might run the risk of going wrong - though Labour's bizarre decision to engrave its key pledges on a monolith came close to being the most idiotic moment of the whole campaign. But the Tories have benefits of being the incumbents, a slowly improving economy, and a PM with reasonable approval ratings (for some unfathomable reason).
What I'm thinking is that the Tory strategy has not been focused on the pre-election campaign because it's been focused on the post-election campaign. They know there's going to be a hung parliament (this morning the Lib Dems claimed Cameron accepted he couldn't win weeks ago) and they're not really trying to win the popular vote. Instead, they are positioning themselves to stay in power by manipulating public opinion. Why? Here's the basic Tory problem:
- It looks likely that the Tories will get around 279 seats.* Add the Lib Dems, who will probably get around 27 and you have 306 seats. That's way short of a majority. Who else might support that minority Coalition on a confidence & supply basis? 4 UKIP + 8 DUP seats. It's still only 318, which is 3 short of a majority.**
- Labour meanwhile look likely to get 270 seats. Add the SNP, who will probably get around 47 and you have 318. Then who might support this minority Coalition on a confidence & supply basis? 3 Plaid Cymru + 3 SDLP + 1 Green. That makes 325: a workable majority. And who's to say that some Lib Dems (or indeed the whole party) might not be brought onside?
Cameron has nowhere to go. So instead of winning the election fair and square he's trying to manage the post-election settlement ahead of time. And this has involved creating a narrative. This narrative has three strands.
- A Labour/SNP coalition would be illegitimate.
This has been the overwhelming message of the last three weeks. No rationale has been given for this absurd claim. The SNP's MPs will be democratically elected. The SNP would no more be holding Labour 'to ransom' than the Lib Dems have held the Tories to ransom. Coalitions mean identifying overlaps and doing deals on policy. Cameron's scaremongering suggests this will lead to the break-up of the Union. But (a) given the No vote in last year's referendum, this does not look like a likely option any time soon but also (b) that's just an opinion Cameron disagrees with; he also disagrees with many Lib Dem policies but he's been in Coalition with them, and (c) ruling out allowing virtually all Scotland's elected representatives from taking part in UK government looks like a de facto break-up of the Union anyway (and that kind of attitude will hasten the actual break-up). It looks likely that the Lib Dems and Tories will have virtually no seats in Scotland this time round, so a Coalition between them would have no representation from Scotland. Is that legitimate? The problem is that this narrative has become so strong that Miliband has been cornered into saying he'll not form a Coalition or even do a deal with the SNP. I suspect Miliband has been forced to declare this because of the pincer movement of the Tory narrative on one side and his own party's visceral hatred of the upstart SNP. I'm hoping these statement can be carefully parsed to permit some kind of agreement on HoC votes, because otherwise Miliband has been suckered into losing the election before a single seat is declared.
- The party with the largest number of votes must have the first chance to try to form a government.
This isn't true. Nick Clegg seems to believe it's true. It's what he said last time. But it isn't true. But the Tories are spreading this rumour around, using the weasel word 'legitimacy' and their friends in the press are repeating it as if it has the slightest constitutional significance. A Tory party with 279 seats would have no legitimacy, no right to rule just because the Tories and Nick Clegg say so. If Labour get fewer seats than the Tories, that has almost no practical significance because they are both a long way short of a majority. Yet the Telegraph think for Miliband to pursue a Coalition with a view to becoming Prime Minister, this would be a 'plot'. Neither the Tories nor Labour would be able to command the confidence of the House on their own. They will have to form Coalitions because that's how our system works.
- The incumbent must have the first chance to try to form a government before anyone else.
This is also not true, but I bet we'll hear a lot about this. What is true is that Cameron remains PM unless a new government is formed, but that doesn't mean anything about whether he gets to try to form his Government first. And note, this didn't happen in 2010 - because then the Tories, successfully, put about the idea that Labour had lost the moral authority to govern. If the predictions are correct, the Coalition will have lost 52 seats and will have lost their majority. In a sense, they will have lost the election. Labour and the SNP between them will have gained 55 seats (14 and 41 respectively) and will have overtaken the Coalition. But Cameron will deliberately confuse the distinction between his right to continue as PM until a new government is formed and a fictional priority in all negotiations.
By pushing this narrative at us over the next week, the Tories hope to mount what is effectively a constitutional right-wing coup. The Tories will be rejected by the electorate but they hope they will overcome this minor inconvenience and rule anyway. In this they know they will be supported by a great deal of the press. The model is George W Bush's first Presidential election, stolen by a mixture of Fox News, Democrat indecision, and the Supreme Court.
In this, they will be aided and abetted by the Liberal Democrats. Or will they? The Orange Book faction of the party have been in the ascendent in the last decade but there are signs that the rank and file are unhappy. They have been relatively loyal to Clegg but the Tories plan to go much further in their welfare cuts in the next parliament and may also raise tuition fees further, which would pour salt in the Lib Dem wounds.*** Why doesn't Labour make a a strong case to the left of the party (Cable, Hughes, etc.) and urge them to form a Coalition against the Tories? That would truly give the Tories nowhere to go. And if David Laws doesn't like it, he can fuck off and join the Conservatives.
On Friday morning, a huge anti-Tory alliance must assert itself, confidently rebut the mendacious Tory narrative and prevent this right-wing coup.
- The brilliant Owen Jones has written a great piece on the same subject and, in a happy meeting of minds, we've arrived at the same title. The last three paragraphs are terrifyingly plausible.
- This excellent piece by Jane Martinson illustrates the right-wing press approach and usefully reminds us of the 'squatter' accusation levelled against Gordon Brown in 2010. Will those same journalists throw the same insults at David Cameron if he won't budge?
- There's quite a debate about the significance of the Fixed-Term Parliament Act 2011 on these debates. I've removed this discussion from these notes and will look at them separately here.
* I'm using the figures in The Independent's poll of polls, published on 3 May 2015.
** [amended] There is 650 seats in the House of Commons. Sinn Fein have 5 MPs but don't take their seats. The speaker also has a seat and so do his three deputies. So that reduces the practical calculation to 641. To get a majority would be to have 321 seats.
*** The nightmare for the universities would be that the Lib Dems 'win' a concession of a freeze on £9k fees but with no top-up from central government, which would mean effectively a 16% cut in the universities' tuition income by the end of the next parliament (and that's assuming an annual 2.5% inflation rate, so that's generous to the government).