Conservative policy generally seems to be one of practicality over principle, which would also seem to sum up David Cameron’s approach to most issues. Just as the new Conservative group in the European Parliament probably has more to do with domestic Party necessity than usefully making friends and influencing people (thedissenter), the Cameron policy of offering a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty is similarly practical.
Electorally, the Conservatives need a substantial swing to ensure a majority. UKPollingReport provides a fun way of keeping in touch with what the latest poll means with a simple swing calculator. A simple exercise on this swingometer shows the volatility of the electorate, and the electoral challenge that faces the Conservatives until May 2010.
For this example thedissenter is using the YouGov daily poll (chosen only because this is best suited for the example). You may want to play with numbers from the ICM Guardian monthly polls, or any other of your choice. There will be plenty of opportunity to test the swingometer with the many polls that will appear frequently in the media over the coming months. Using the poll of 6th October provides the Conservatives with a comfortable majority of around sixty (Con 41, Lab 28, LD 18), just two weeks before the 22nd October poll shows the majority was a less comfortable twenty-four (Con 39, Lab 27, LD 20). The poll on the 22nd showed a very high ‘others’ at 14%.
The strength of ‘others’ is always greater in the aftermath of a European election: when the British electorate seems to enjoy itself by giving one in the eye to Europe and with the other end of the stick one in the eye to the big three established parties. However, the polling of ‘others’ seems to be more resilient this time, and the distance between the European election and the General Election will be less than a year.
It may be that the relative voting strength of ‘others’ at election time that, perhaps for the first time, will be a significant factor in determining the formation of the next Government. For example, the poll on the 22nd October showed a high percentage of ‘others’, but just 2% more for Labour (and less for ‘others’) would have meant that the Conservatives would fall three short of an overall majority. However, 2% for Labour and just one more percentage point for the Conservatives (‘others down 3%) and a majority of twelve is generated for the Tories.
The Conservatives polling is staying stubbornly around the 40%, give or take, rarely allowing for a majority of more than 20 seats, which must be very uncomfortable for Conservative strategists. There is no doubt that a significant percentage of the ‘others’ polling is UKIP, which tends to eat into Conservative votes for the most part; which is why the promise of a referendum on Europe is so important.
While there is no ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, the argument that the only Party to offer a referendum is the Conservative Party may be enough to assure that UKIP voters will vote Conservative; UKIP voters having little chance of seeing a UKIP candidate elected and Europe being the only issue they care much about, believing they can win a no campaign.
It is therefore a major question for the Conservative Party as to what the approach will be if Lisbon is ratified before May. As a Treaty, Lisbon would be almost impossible to unravel. While not in power, the Conservatives have little ability to influence the advance of the European project before May 2010. Even if elected, by wandering off with its Teddy Bear from the centre of European dialogue the Conservative Party is unlikely to have sufficient weight to achieve a great deal, or indeed any deal.
Yet without a sufficiently ‘robust’ Conservative approach on Europe for home consumption, and it is far from clear what that could be, the UKIP voter is fickle enough to vote in protest regardless – because to the UKIP voter only Europe matters. While much of the New Labour vote may simply not vote for Labour in 2010, most likely the UKIP vote will go to the polling booths one way or another.
Feedback from the Conservative Party Conference this week has been that there is not the anticipation that there was in the 1996 Labour Conference, when there was a similarly tired and unfocused Government and power seemed within grasp. European policy has added weight in the Conservative election planning because it is abundantly clear from any of the three Party Conferences in recent weeks that there is little chance of offering the electorate a cheerful message of better times ahead. Every vote will count in May 2010.
The difficulty is that while Europe is a factor in securing votes from potential UKIP voters, that same factor makes the Cameron approach to Europe potentially divisive within the Conservative Party. However, thedissenter would expect the prospect of power to outweigh principle for all Conservatives, pre-election, even though whatever the approach adopted should Lisbon be ratified before a British election will need to sound sufficiently antagonistic towards Europe to keep the European sceptic vote on side. Conservative Europhiles will swallow hard and bide their time.
Of course all this is speculation, the swingometer is fun, and the election still some months away. It is, however, abundantly clear that a Conservative majority following a May election is not a certainty at this point in time and there is every chance of a very tight result.
So Europe matters.
So too might Northern Ireland, for once, though not as an election campaign issue.
The Europe factor makes it especially difficult at this point in time to be certain of a Conservative majority in 2010. This may make the couple of seats that may arise from the UCUNF project in Northern Ireland of greater importance to David Cameron than might be generally presumed.
The ‘Others’ and the 18 Northern Ireland seats are generally considered to be part of the opposition against which the pollsters calculate an anticipated majority. Two UCUNF seats could make all the difference between ‘losing’ and the slimmest of majorities. By the same token, so would that block of DUP seats – it would be interesting to see how practical politics would then impact on the Conservative/UUP compact.
Which is why doubts will always hang over what really matters to David Cameron’s Conservative Party. When practicality is the driving force, neither principle nor partnership will be allowed to stand in the way.