Tuesday, 1 February 2011

If there is an early election this year I will eat my hat

Now, the twittersphere has been somewhat abuzz over the last few weeks with suggestions that Cameron might call an early election in May. The origin of these rumours is an article by Labour MP Tom Watson on the Labour Uncut website. Watson declares that a ‘Conservative insider’ told him this would happen, and he’s gained some credibility as the same insider told him Coulson would be gone on the 25th of January (Coulson left slightly earlier – on the 21st).

Now the argument for Watson’s point is fairly simple: the Lib Dems are an unreliable coalition partner, the coalition will break at some point, an early election gives Cameron a chance to gain a majority, and that an election would be relatively easy to win with neither Labour, nor the Lib Dems prepared and both in a far worse financial situation than the Tories.

As simple as it is, the whole argument is ridiculous. Firstly it cannot have escaped Cameron’s notice that currently Labour are leading in the polls. Now polls are one thing and election campaigns are another, but one should remember that in order to be guaranteed a majority the Tories need to lead by about eleven points over Labour. Election campaigns are unpredictable things, and there is no guarantee Cameron would win at all. There have been two years in which Britain has gone to the polls twice: 1910 and 1974, in both those elections the general public returned a result that was broadly the same. In calling an early election Cameron would also risk handing his opponents a gigantic weapon. The Liberal Democrats, for example, would be able to declare that the Conservatives had betrayed them, by rescinding on their coalition deal for no reason. The question would then go out: how can you trust the Conservative Party and David Cameron considering their betrayal of their coalition partners. No doubt there will be readers who question how trustworthy the Liberal Democrats are, but even if the effect is simply to make Conservative-leaning voters stay at home it will have worth. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats would also be able to argue that the Conservatives were risking the economy on a frivolous early election, for the markets are unlikely to react well to such unpredictability. We should remember the lessons of European coalition governments: breaking a coalition is a very difficult thing. If a party is seen to have done it for frivolous reasons they are generally punished. Parties are only rewarded for such things when it is seen that their coalition partner has broken a promise to them.

At the same time whereas both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are financially weak both demonstrate excellent capabilities at ‘ground war’. They have sizeable activist bases, a superb capability to target key seats and an electoral system which is to the Conservative disadvantage. The Lib Dems may be polling badly but as a party they have historically demonstrated an impressive capability to hold seats in the face of large vote losses. This runs the risk of yet another hung parliament, and given the hypothetical events we have outlined it is worth asking why the Liberal Democrats would think about another deal with the Conservative Party. Having demonstrated their untrustworthiness, the Conservative opportunity to govern in such a situation is greatly diminished.

The coalition is also currently in the middle of governing. The Coalition has produced a raft of huge reforms to public services, which will have only been put into place by 2015. An early election means tearing ministers away from those reforms and giving the Conservatives little in the way of evidence for how they have changed Britain. The current Coalition strategy is actually rather simple: implement vast reforms to public services and cuts, endure mass unpopularity and go to the polls in 2015 just as the economy should be bouncing back and the reforms should be kicking in. An early election tears up this whole strategy.

I would also question how unreliable a partner Cameron thinks the Lib Dems are. So far not a single piece of government legislation has been defeated through Lib Dem votes. Nor are there many tales of problems with Lib Dem ministers to speak off. The Lib Dems are polling poorly, clearly, but if anything this makes them less likely to break the coalition, as the hope of bouncing back exists, in combination with continuing in government (indeed, recent polls have shown a small, but discernable, movement in the polls back in the Lib Dems favour of late).

Finally, I believe Cameron enjoys Coalition. Coalition has allowed him to counterbalance the Conservative Party right, jettisoning some of the party’s more right-wing policies in the process and frankly the question can be asked: why would he bother? Watson seems to think he will simply do it for the ‘glory’. This strikes me as a foolish reading of Cameron’s personality and overzealousness on Watson’s part.

Quite frankly, there is simply no reason to call an election. Now of course every party will have a folder stowed away somewhere marked ‘In case of early election...’ but this will be purely an emergency measure. The coalition will stay, because for both Cameron and Clegg, it must.


  1. think you make excellent points but it is the game of unforeseen events that may decide that.

  2. "There have been two years in which Britain has gone to the polls twice: 1910 and 1973"

    Erm...1974 not 1973 ;-)

  3. Well spotted anonymous. Well spotted.

    *shakes fist*