Sunday, January 02, 2005
Bye Bye, Tony? It's all in the numbers game
Posted by David Smith at 10:58 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

It is May 6, 2005. Tony Blair has been re-elected with a big majority and two men are in a state of deep gloom. One is Gordon Brown, sulkily pondering the prime minister’s “take it or leave it” offer of the job of foreign secretary. The other is Michael Howard, gloomily pondering his resignation and the view that there is little prospect of the Tories seriously challenging Labour in 2013, let alone 2009.

Or, it is May 6, 2005, and a chirpy Charles Kennedy, his party having doubled its House of Commons seats to more than 100, is striding up Downing Street to demand at least four seats in a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition cabinet, and immediate legislation to introduce proportional representation.

Or even, an extremely long shot, the removal van has parked discreetly at the back of No 10 and is packing up the children’s toys. A tearful Cherie Blair is glimpsed at a window as Howard, after the most miraculous comeback since Lazarus, stands at the Downing Street podium promising to unite the nation.

At the start of what, barring accidents, will be Britain’s election year, all outcomes are theoretically possible. The Tories could achieve a miracle by overturning Labour’s huge majority. The party is placing great faith in its so-called Voter Vault, based on the Mosaic consumer classification system developed by Experian, the business information company. This is intended to enable the Tories to tap into the precise concerns of voters in marginal constituencies and woo them back from Labour.

The Lib Dems, buoyed by their opposition to the Iraq war, go into 2005 with Kennedy predicting “shadow cabinet meltdown” for the Tories at the hands of the Lib Dems.

Howard, with a majority of less than 6,000, would be the biggest scalp, but in bigger danger are David Davis and Oliver Letwin with majorities of less than 2,000, and Tim Collins and Theresa May, precariously placed with leads of little more than 3,000. Officially, the Lib Dems are not interested in coalitions with Labour. Unofficially, the temptation would be hard to resist in a hung parliament.

Even a Labour victory would not necessarily be good news for Blair. A majority of less than 50 would not only give renewed hope to the Tories but also bring an immediate knock on the door from Brown. He would point out the damage to the party, and his own prospects, of Blair serving out his final term in such circumstances. Far better to step aside now and give his successor a chance to rebuild.

So what will it be? Do the Tories have a chance or would they be better off not bothering to campaign? How much damage has Iraq and the political wear and tear from almost eight years in power done to Blair? Could the Lib Dems replace the Tories as the main opposition party, or is this just a pipe dream? And what would be the effect of an even lower turnout than 2001’s low of 59.4%? For the Tories, the depressing news is that they are going nowhere when they need to be making progress. Not only is Labour ahead in the polls, when the Tories need to be in the lead by several points, but also the Conservative party is struggling when it comes to votes cast.

The latest Sunday Times survey of local government by-election results, by Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of the Elections Centre at Plymouth University, shows the Tories with 34% of the vote, ahead of Labour and the Lib Dems on 29% each.

The analysis, based on nearly 50,000 votes cast in the final three months of 2004, is superficially good news for Howard. Indeed, the Tory leader has been emphasising the party’s local showing.

Unfortunately, it appears to be a mirage. In the April-June quarter, the Tories had 41% of the local vote. For 2004 as a whole the party’s share was 36%, the same as during 2003 under Iain Duncan Smith and only a point up on 2002.

“The Tories have been ‘flatlining’ in the opinion polls and their local party organisations are similarly becalmed,” says Thrasher. “The electoral arithmetic that confronts the Conservatives at the next general election is daunting.”

The difficulty for the Tories is not just the size of Labour’s majority. Even to get it below 50 the Tories would need a swing of about 5.5% — similar to that achieved by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 — and overturn Labour majorities of more than 5,000 in dozens of constituencies.

If a Tory victory looks to be a fantasy, so is the idea that the Lib Dems could become the main opposition. While they may be capable of claiming some high-profile Tory scalps, in most Tory seats where the Lib Dems are in second place the majority is just too large. Under first-past-the-post the only realistic circumstances in which the Lib Dems could edge ahead of the Tories would be if Labour significantly added to its seats, leaving the other two to fight it out as Commons’ minnows.

Could the “apathy factor” undermine Labour? It could, although the evidence from 2001 was that low turnout did not hurt the government. Professors David Denver and Gordon Hands, in an Economic and Social Research Council project, found that turnout fell most in “safe” seats, where there was no chance of a change of party, and held up better in marginals, where the parties concentrated their campaigning efforts.

So it looks like Labour, with the Tories in second place. According to William Hill, the bookmakers, Labour is 1/6 to be the largest party — more than a racing certainty — with the Tories 7/2 and the Lib Dems rank outsiders at 40/1.

But how big a Labour majority? The website quotes the spread-betting exchange Spreadfair, which in a 646-seat House of Commons (down from the present 659 because of Scottish boundary changes) has Labour winning about 352 seats, a loss of more than 50. The Tories are seen as winning about 197, up more than 30, the Lib Dems 71, up 16. If this turns out to be right, Blair’s majority would be 58; 100 down and close to the point where his Downing Street neighbour tells him his time is up.

It may not happen. December’s opinion polls averaged out at Labour 37%, the Tories 32% and the Lib Dems 21%. According to Thrasher and Rallings that outcome at the election would give Labour 383, the Tories 172, the Lib Dems 59. others 32 and a government majority of 120, enough for Blair to tell Brown to go away. Between a big Labour victory and a small one, the course of the next few years and the prime minister’s political future will lie.

From The Sunday Times, January 2 2005


Mr Howard threw away his credibility with Flip Flops ala Kerry over the Iraq War and has now thrown away id cards as a stick to beat the government with. His ineptitude means that he does not deserve a good result in the election.

To lose one election is normal, to lose two unfortunate. But to lose three in a row is very careless indeed.

Posted by: EU Serf at January 2, 2005 03:58 PM

Yes, I agree with that. The failure of the Tories to mount an effective opposition has been one of the constant themes of the past eight years. They're still stuck at first base.

Posted by: David Smith at January 3, 2005 11:15 AM