The moment the Tories won the 2015 election

Peter KellnerPresident
December 22, 2014, 10:02 AM UTC

How AV could have helped David Cameron win the 2015 general election

May 8, 2015

As David Cameron enjoyed the luxury of constructing his new Cabinet without having to give any jobs to the Liberal Democrats, he recalled the moment when, in retrospect, yesterday’s victory became inevitable.

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That moment was on the day of his 44th birthday. On October 9, 2010, he had been Prime Minister for five months. His political honeymoon with the Lib Dems was coming to an end. He was worried the coalition might not last the full five years. He wanted to keep Nick Clegg onside. But he also wanted the House of Commons to reduce its size of from 650 MPs to 600. Ostensibly, this was about cutting the cost of Parliament. In truth, it was about giving the Tories the 20-seat bonus, relative to Labour, that number-crunchers said would be his. 

Lib Dem MPs were getting twitchy about the boundaries plan. Many of them had a strong personal following in their own localities but not beyond them. Wholesale changes, with larger constituencies, put them at risk. They reckoned that their best hope of holding their seats was for the coming referendum on the voting system to produce a majority for the Alternative Vote (AV). This would enable some of them to overtake their main rival on second preferences, and convert defeat under first-past-the-post (FPTP) into victory under the new system.

Most Tories disliked AV. When it came to constitutional reform, they responded as in the old joke. (Q: How many Tory MPs does it take to change a light bulb? A: Change? Change?)

Cameron had no strong feelings on this issue. If the price of a smaller Commons was modest electoral reform, why not go for it?   Besides, his coalition agreement with Clegg had offered an explicit quid pro quo: ‘the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies’ in the event of a referendum majority for AV. The agreement did not actually require the Prime Minister to campaign for AV; but if he actively thwarted it, the Lib Dems might block his boundaries plan.

As he sipped his second glass of champagne from the magnum of Krug that Jeffrey Archer, ever hopeful of preferment, had sent him for his birthday, Cameron made up his mind. He would back AV and do all he could to persuade Tory supporters to vote for it.

Cameron’s decision tipped the balance. 55% of voters backed AV in the referendum. Starting in 2015, voters would mark their ballot papers 1, 2, 3 to indicate their order of preference among the candidates, not ‘x’ against a single name.

Clegg was delighted. He felt that this would not only help Lib Dem MPs keep their seats, but give the party victories in places where they were running a close second. They hoped to garner a lot of second preferences from voters backing the eliminated, third-place, Labour or Conservative, candidate. With AV in place, the Lib Dems kept to their side of the bargain in the coalition agreement. Parliament passed the bill reducing the overall number of MPs.

The reason the boundary changes helped the Tories was that they sharply reduced the number of constituencies in Labour’s heartlands. By 2010, these seats tended to have smaller electorates than Conservative heartland seats. The new law imposed stricter rules on the Boundary Commission to ensure near-equal electorates for each constituency. Had the 2010 election been fought under the new boundaries, Labour would won 28 fewer seats – while the Tories would have been down only 8. David Cameron would have led 299 MPs, just two short of an absolute majority. With the five Sinn Fein MPs not taking their seats, the Tories would have been able to govern, at least for a while, without needing a coalition with the Lib Dems.

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Now, on the day after the 2015 election, Cameron recalled his birthday decision with a wry smile. In yesterday’s vote, the double change – AV and fewer, larger, constituencies – had hurt both Labour and the Lib Dems. Only the Tories had benefitted. The final tally gave the Conservatives an overall majority of 20. Had the AV and boundary changes not gone through, they would have fallen 25 seats short.

On their own, the boundary changes would have helped the Tories, but still thwarted their hopes of a clear-cut victory. What converted a precarious minority into a secure majority was something that nobody had predicted at the time of the AV referendum. Ukip’s arrival as a significant force meant that the new voting system actually rewarded the Conservatives. 

As the results came in, 20 Conservative MPs found that they were narrowly behind the local Labour or Lib Dem candidate on the first count. Under FPTP they would have lost their seats; under AV they kept them. This was because most Ukip supporters gave their second preferences to the Conservatives. Once the third or fourth-placed Ukip candidate had been eliminated, these second preferences allowed the Tory candidate to overtake their Labour or Lib Dem rival.

Under FPTP, Ukip would have divided the right-of-centre vote and cost the Tories these seats. In effect AV, reunited much of  this vote and carried the Conservatives to victory in their crucial marginals. (The Lib Dems only won three extra seats from the switch to AV. They were too unpopular to reap the harvest for which they had hoped.)

As he contemplated five more years as Prime Minister, this time without the constraints of coalition, Cameron reflected on how wise had been his birthday decision back in 2010. Had he opposed AV, the referendum would have been lost. Without AV, the Lib Dems would have worked with Labour to defeat the boundaries bill. Under FPTP on the old boundaries, the Tories would now be well short of a majority. Cameron’s own position might be threatened by rebellious backbenchers, furious that he had once again failed to achieve outright victory. 

Thanks goodness, Cameron thought, that he had managed to avoid that terrible nightmare.