Always underestimated

David Cameron may yet lead the Conservatives into the next general election, argues Jonathan Todd

Tony Blair, I was told by someone who spoke to him at the time, was confident when David Cameron became Conservative party leader that he would go the same way as the previous Tory leaders that he had gone head to head with. Given that Blair got the better of John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, Cameron, having outlasted Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, is one Labour leader away from matching the number of opponents mastered by his predecessor but one.

Labour has consistently underestimated Cameron. To assume that Labour will not fight a Cameron-led Conservative party at the next general election risks doing so again.

Only people convinced of their own greatness reach the top of the greasy pole. The longer they stay there, the more they are sure of this greatness. This means that Cameron will not be rushing to step aside for a colleague, especially Boris Johnson – the wrong sort of Etonian – whom he believes to be less blessed.

While Cameron has said he will not contest another general election, he has been at his most impressive when seemingly cornered. For example, it was he who fronted the rearguard action that averted the ‘election that never was’ in 2007 and snatched the triumph of coalition government from the jaws of unexpected failure to defeat Gordon Brown’s tired party.

As we have never really believed that his heart is in it, Labour takes Cameron at his word and thinks of no version of May 2020 in which Cameron features as Conservative leader. We have presumed he is a dilettante, looking forward to an easy life of country walks and long pub afternoons. Instead, he is like every other prime minister: fired by insatiable ambition. They never rush to have more time to read the newspapers. They want to keep making the news for as long as possible.

Until this year’s general election victory, Cameron appeared reasonably content that history would record him as someone who got the Conservatives back in government, kept the United Kingdom together at the Scottish referendum, and secured the UK’s continued membership of the European Union. When he conceded to the BBC’s James Landale that 2015 would be the last general election that he would fight as leader, he probably anticipated that his remaining time in office would be in coalition or minority government. Cameron might also have had the EU referendum in mind: lose it and he would have to resign; win it and, having fought against much of his party to do so, party management would become so strained that resignation would also follow.

Two things have changed since the ‘Landale concession’. The first is that Cameron won a majority, which will have reaffirmed his self-belief. He is certainly smart enough to ‘do the math’: Labour faces a massive challenge to win in 2020. Boundary reviews will cement the advantage that the comprehensive 2015 victory gives the Conservatives. Much can happen in five years but right now, whoever is leading the Conservatives in May 2020 is the most likely prime minister for the 2020 parliament. The second is Cameron’s attempt to bring forward the date of the EU referendum.

These two facts may not be unconnected. Cameron will recognise how strongly placed the Conservatives are for 2020 and may be loath to allow the EU referendum to deny him the chance to be the one who most benefits. The earlier in the parliament the referendum happens, the less likely it is to result in Cameron’s resignation. Both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ votes contain the possibility of such a resignation. These risks to Cameron are contained by Tory members of parliament pulling themselves back from the brink by concluding, ‘We’ve only just won the election, he deserves more time than this’. In contrast, the longer we wait for the referendum, the more likely they are to reflect, ‘This is a good moment for him to go, as he must before the election, which is not now far away.’

Of course, Cameron was robustly challenged by other Tories in his attempt to move the referendum forward from 2017 to 2016, which attests to vulnerability. But the crucial point is that the attempt to bring the referendum forward may have been motivated by the desire to stay beyond 2020. Which would be an outcome that his neighbour, George Osborne, is likely to be pleased by, as it is arguable that Osborne recognises the limitations that make him less suited to being prime minister than Cameron, while at the same time desiring what he has now: maximum power without being prime minister.

Osborne’s relationship to Cameron is much less antagonistic than Brown’s to Blair. All grievance with Blair in the parliamentary Labour party had a magnet in Brown. The parliamentary Conservative party has no such force. Johnson, not troubled by the doubts about his suitability for the top job that are said to inhibit Osborne, would like to become it. A prime minister and chancellor working hand in glove, however, hold sufficient patronage to potentially nullify any such attempt.

What Cameron and Osborne would then be looking for is a pretext for the prime minister to stay beyond 2020. If they could insist with straight faces that an ‘emergency budget’ was required in summer 2010, and have this widely believed, it is far from impossible, particularly in a world perpetually as full of calamity as this, that they can concoct such a justification.

Then whoever is Labour leader in 2020 would inevitably be presented as a risk versus the tried-and-tested Cameron, who by then may be sitting on the fruits of over half a decade of rising GDP. By triggering memories of the credit crunch, as the Tories manipulated the winter of discontent throughout the yuppie era, Cameron may be able to persuade that the country has improved markedly under him. The harder question may be where he would take it next. The time has come, though, for Labour to stop underestimating him.