With the 2013 Budget just days away, cast your mind back twelve months to the Chancellor’s speech this time last year. Most commentators consider the 2012 Budget a tipping point – badly managed, badly communicated, and catalysing months of negative press for the Government about all sorts of relatively inane issues.
The headlines about caravans and pasties may have subsided, but the widely held perception that the Government (and the Prime Minister and Chancellor more specifically) are in trouble, has not. A humiliating third place finish behind UKIP in a recent by-election has led some Conservatives to speak openly about leadership challenge. The Chancellor is under immense pressure from his own party to deliver a solid Budget (challenging, given the circumstances) and even if he does, it will likely only buy some time until local government elections in May, in which the Conservatives will be defending seats that they took during a 2009 high point, and in which they will almost certainly lose control of a number of councils.
So with a general election just 26 months away, most agree that the Conservatives are in trouble. But to what extent remains debatable.
A recent ICM poll gave Labour a lead of 8% over the Conservatives – enough to put Ed Miliband in Downing Street with a comfortable majority of 94 seats. Yet if recent history is anything to go by, the Conservatives can find cause for some cheer.
In March 1995 – 26 months ahead of Labour’s landslide ’97 election win, the same ICM poll gave Tony Blair’s party a 25% lead over the Conservatives. Labour also commanded the support of an impressive 52% of the population. That figure is 13 points lower today.
Further back in 1990, 26 months ahead of the ‘92 general election, Labour had a 21 point lead over the Conservatives, and again had the support of over half of the public. By the time the election came around, the Conservatives led Labour by 8% and John Major was returned to Downing Street for an historic fourth term. That represents a ‘swing’ of about 15 points in just over two years, during which time the Conservatives fought amongst themselves, and knifed their leader. A lot can happen in 26 months.
It would be complacent for the Conservatives to put their troubles down to a mid-term slump. Furthermore David Cameron’s party will need to increase its share of the vote at the next election if it is to avoid another coalition – very rare indeed for an incumbent party of Government. So in some senses the Conservative backbench is right to be concerned. The odds are certainly against them.
But even on current polling, the Conservatives’ troubles are not as severe as some are suggesting. Labour’s lead is not commanding and, should we see the economic recovery strengthen, it could prove to be very soft indeed.
A Conservative majority Government in 2015? Stranger things have happened.