Stunning victory leaves Cameron awash with political capital
Published by The Independent (8th May, 2015)
This stunning election victory is something to savour for David Cameron. It is a personal triumph that trounces not just political rivals, the pollsters and most pundits but also the many detractors inside his own party. I know of one right-wing former minister who had been planning to demand the Prime Minister’s resignation as soon as possible after voting ended; no doubt, through insincere smiles, he is now praising his leader’s wisdom.
This will give Cameron deserved pleasure – and not just because his record is redefined after what now look like two remarkable election results. The first in 2010 saw the biggest net gain in Tory seats for eight decades, and now this second success finally gives him an overall majority. The nearly man has become the history man. And for all the talk of multi-party politics, such was the Liberal Democrat collapse the combined share of vote for the two main parties rose for the first time in nearly 30 years.
There was euphoria among his team, seen when an ebullient Cameron told party workers that this was his sweetest victory. They had spent election day rattled by the refusal of polls to shift. ‘We thought the issue of leadership would win this election, but I had a wobble when I saw the final polls,’ admitted one aide. The prediction handed to the Prime Minister by Stephen Gilbert, director of campaigning, indicated that the party would win 295 seats. Yet it had only allowed for half the key Labour-Tory marginals to turn blue when in fact almost all of them ended up in their hands.
This reflected focus group findings that voters had grown fearful of an SNP-empowered Labour government, alarmed by Alex Salmond’s presence in Westminster rather than Nicola Sturgeon’s shadow from Scotland. When they looked at Cameron, they saw a leader personally popular and perceived as prime ministerial – in stark contrast to his opponent, who seemed like a student politician. So after five years of public spending cuts, the Prime Minister – so lucky with his opponents – actually added to his army of MPs.
I have often wondered if Cameron’s biggest failing as a politician was that he is too normal and not the sort of distorted personality that so often ends up in Downing Street. Perhaps this is why he finds himself in essay-crisis mode, having to salvage situations at the last minute. Certainly his campaigning over the final few days saw him start to play to his strengths. Despite the campaign constraints imposed by Lynton Crosby, Cameron became more passionate and pumped up. Did it work? Hell, yes.
Now he has the most political capital in his pocket since those early days of successful modernisation, before he was sent spinning off course by austerity and the rise of Ukip. He has propelled three rival leaders into retirement and silenced his critics. No doubt he will rectify one of his biggest mistakes in government by rapidly pushing through boundary changes to strengthen his party in future contests. As he shakes up his senior team, he must also work out how to handle events in Scotland that have placed the Union in greater jeopardy.
But even in this moment of triumph, there will be doubts. As one cabinet minister told me a few months ago, the result they dreaded was a tiny majority, with the Government held hostage by ‘the nutters’. The person speaking was on the right, so knew the contempt felt for Cameron on his wing of the party. Maybe this will be dissipated by the influx of new MPs; indeed, one vindication of Cameron’s modernisation strategy can be seen in the growing number of ethnic minority Tory MPs, rising from two when he took over as leader to 17 today.
After this incredible victory, Cameron’s goal should be to secure his legacy by governing as a compassionate Conservative true to his own instincts. It was heartening to hear him talk about reclaiming ‘a mantle we should never have lost, the mantle of one nation’ in his constituency speech. There will be siren voices saying his success means the Tory brand is no longer toxic, while his pragmatic style as a politician means there is always a risk of too many tactical feints to see off challenges. But having made electoral history, he has a rare opportunity to use his experience to be bold and reshape his nation for the better.
Cameron worked as a young adviser in the back rooms of the Major government, so he has seen all too clearly what happens when a government with a tiny minority is hijacked by a few self-serving fanatics. Yet he has probably two years at most to drive home his ambitions, before hostilities over Europe erupt again in the run-up to referendum. It is worth noting that this shock result also increases the chance of handing over the leadership to his friend George Osborne. But this is Cameron’s moment. He has redefined himself as a politician – and now he can redefine himself as a prime minister.