Cameron must stay

Peter KellnerPresident
June 18, 2013, 6:00 AM GMT+0

Dear Conservative activist: I know these are difficult times. The membership of your local party is smaller and older than it has ever been. You lost seats to UKIP in last month’s local elections. You want Britain out of the EU and fear that the Prime Minister is dragging his feet. You don’t like your party’s MPs squabbling at Westminster, and blame David Cameron. You ask what possessed him to promote gay marriage – a terrible idea that the government was under no pressure to back. You feel that Cameron is allowing the Liberal Democrat tail to wag the coalition dog. You have always thought yourself as a loyalist who distrusts the party’s right-wing ideologists; but you have come to the conclusion that this time they are right. Cameron is a liability. If your party is to have any chance of winning the next election, you reckon he must go.

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You are wrong. At least, your conclusion that Cameron is a liability is wrong. My intention in this blog is not to argue for gay marriage, Britain’s membership of the European Union, the virtues of coalition government or even the PM’s competence. I simply want to draw your attention to the fact that, despite all the things that vex you, Cameron remains your party’s greatest electoral asset.

Let’s start with voting intention. Yes, Labour holds a steady 8-9% lead, enough to secure an overall majority. But the striking thing is how small this is, not how large. In past parliaments, governing parties have often lagged 20 points or more behind at this stage. They have invariably gained ground as the election drew near. Of course nobody can guarantee that the same thing will happen between now and 2015. Maybe, what with the dynamics of coalition politics and the recent surge of UKIP, this time will be different. On the other hand, if the Tories remain within touching distance of Labour after three years of falling living standards, it should be able to win back quite a few votes if, as now seems likely, the story of the next two years is of steady, if unspectacular, economic growth.

When we ask people to choose between the main leaders, rather than the parties, the Cameron advantage starts to become clear. YouGov regularly asks people who would make the best Prime Minister. Our latest figures are: David Cameron 32%, Ed Miliband 21%, Nick Clegg 5%. A further 41% say ‘none of them’. A nine-point voting-intention deficit converts to an 11-point leader advantage.

Ah, some will say, this is not as impressive as it seems. Cameron’s 32% rating is virtually the same as the party’s 30% voting intention score. And Cameron only looks good because he is up against two rivals whom the public don’t respect.

The first point is understandable but mistaken. Our voting intention figures exclude those who say ‘don’t know’ or ‘would not vote’. To compare them with our best-PM figures, we should recalculate them to show the support enjoyed by each party AS A PERCENTAGE OF THE TOTAL SAMPLE. These are the relevant figure for the same poll where we asked who would make the best prime Minister: Labour 29%, Conservative 23%, UKIP 12%, Lib Dem 7%. Cameron, with a personal score of 32%, exceeds his party’s rating by nine percentage points.

Some of this may be explained by the continuing weakness in Miliband’s standing. If voters rated Labour’s leader more highly, then Cameron’s score might be slightly lower. However, the main effect of Miliband’s unpopularity is to swell the ranks of the ‘don’t knows’ when people are asked who would make the best prime minister.

Further evidence that Cameron is an electoral asset comes from our weekly polls for the Sunday Times. Our latest figures – and they are pretty stable – show that just 25% approve of the Government’s record to date, while 34% think Cameron is doing well as Prime Minister. Once again, the gap is nine points; and this time the questions make no mention of Labour or Miliband.

Among Conservative voters, by the way, Cameron is extremely popular: 85% think he is doing well. The figure for Miliband among Labour voters is much lower: 57%.

That said, only 18% of UKIP voters think Cameron is doing well; and the Tories must win many of these people back if the party is to win the next general election. The hard-headed question is whether replacing Cameron would improve the Tories’ prospects.

On the face of it, the ideal Tory leader would be Boris Johnson. Two weeks ago, a YouGov poll for the Sun showed not only that London’s mayor is immensely popular with voters as a whole; UKIP voters who can’t stand Cameron warm to Boris. Maybe, if the Tories lose the next general election, Cameron stands down as party leader and Boris is back in Parliament (and so eligible to succeed Cameron), then the case might be compelling for switching from one Eton, Oxford and Bullingdon alumnus to another (although I suspect that the prospect of Boris becoming Prime Minister might not, in the end, be as attractive to voters as he and his fans think).

However, some Tories want to force Cameron out BEFORE the next election. Let’s work this through. If Boris is still outside Parliament, he could not be a candidate. And there is no evidence that voters would warm to any other Tory. The minister with the highest rating is William Hague, but he will recall the drubbing he received in 2001 as Tory leader and might not want to risk repeating the experience.

Alternatively, suppose that some Tory MP in a safe seat obligingly stood down, to allow Boris to take his place at a by-election in order to prepare the ground for a leadership contest. We would then have the prospect of weeks, perhaps months, when domestic politics would be consumed by the likelihood and then the reality of a challenge to Cameron. This would not be a quick surgical operation of the kind that disposed of Iain Duncan Smith in 2003 (not that IDS’s replacement by Michael Howard did the Tories any good). It would be the worst kind of political soap opera, in which Britain’s main party of government would be consumed by infighting.

That is unlikely to do the Tories any good. YouGov’s latest figures show that just 10% of the public think the Conservatives are united; 73% regard them as divided. These are terrible numbers. They help to explain why the party lags behind its leader in public affection. To heighten that reputation further with an open battle to depose Cameron would risk doing the party far more harm than good.

The best way for the Tories to overturn Labour’s modest lead would be to show that they have overcome their internal divisions. This means rallying behind Cameron, not replacing him.

I realise that this proposition will not appeal to those who genuinely believe that Cameron is betraying Conservative principles, surrendering too much to social liberalism and failing to fight hard enough to protect British life from the scourges (as they see it) of Europe and immigration. Some of them would undoubtedly prefer to lose the next election under a true Tory than to win under Cameron. They belong to a long line of principled romantics who prefer purity to power. Every democracy needs people like them with their glorious stubbornness and their refusal to sacrifice their dreams of tomorrow to the compromises of today. Thank goodness they exist.

However, those anti-Cameron Tories need to realise that their principles have a price. To divide their party, dispose of its greatest electoral asset and drive it further to the Right will not win them victory in 2015. Instead it will guarantee their party’s defeat.

See the full party leaders tracker results

See the full YouGov / Sunday Times results

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