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April 29, 2013 6:51 pm
When tending their grievance against David Cameron for bungling the last general election, Conservatives like to itemise all the circumstances he had in his favour. There was the lumbering, maladroit Gordon Brown, the 13 years of wear and tear on his Labour government, a bounteous financial advantage for the Tory campaign and an economy still shaking off a recessionary pallor. At no point is it even entertained that the last of these factors actually worked in favour of the incumbents.
Britons will happily cashier a government when the economy is broken (as in 1979) or so robust that change carries no risk (1997 is a case in point). But 2010 was more like 1992. An embryonic recovery from recession stoked the innate caution of voters, though not by enough, in the end, to save Mr Brown. Senior Tories suspect they would have romped the election in a boom, a hunch that is cocky, complacent – and eminently plausible.
The implication of all this is that received wisdom about the next election is wrong. It is conventional to assume an almost linear relationship between Mr Cameron’s chances and growth in gross domestic product. According to this take, an economy burgeoning at trend rate by 2015 would return the prime minister to power, while the fitful crawl of recent years would guarantee his eviction.
But the political cycle does not track the economic cycle so unwaveringly. Instead, a strong economy could relax voters into experimenting with a Labour party they do not really trust. The other extreme – outright recession – would surely see off the Conservatives too. The electoral sweet spot, then, is actually tepid, shuffling growth, real enough to be prized but too fragile to comfortably withstand political upheaval. The 0.3 per cent added in the first quarter of this year is something like it. There is, not that the Tories know it, such a thing as too much growth. Conservative ministers who privately predict that the economy will recover this year, improve in 2014 and really gleam by 2015 should hope they are wrong.
Because it failed to survive first contact with reality, we forget how dubious the Tories’ original plan for winning in 2015 was. After hitting their debt and deficit targets in a single term, they would proffer a pre-election tax cut in a flourishing, “rebalanced” economy and count on being rewarded for their achievements. But people vote on the future. They were always likely to pocket the painstaking work done by the Tories and turn to Labour, a party they hold in less distaste, to win the peace.
Precisely because the economy has flunked the government’s expectations, and its fiscal goals are behind schedule, Mr Cameron finds himself equipped with a more potent story to tell at the next election. My emergency surgery on the British economy is not done, he will say, so don’t let my ham-fisted opponents anywhere near the operating theatre. The Conservatives have failed their way to a cannier election strategy, one that plays to voters’ animal dreads, not their non-existent capacity for gratitude.
There is another reason why Mr Cameron’s re-election in 2015 does not require a great economic flowering: the country does not expect one. The macroeconomic debates that grip the elites – who argue austerity versus stimulus and seize upon each quarter’s growth figures as though they were ex cathedra pronouncements – simply do not exist among voters, who long ago grudgingly reconciled themselves to dismal economic conditions for years to come.
A survey by YouGov for the Resolution Foundation puts some numbers to the depth of pessimism out there. Forty-six per cent of Britons expect their living standards to be worse by 2015, and 28 per cent think there will be no change. Only a fifth are counting on an improvement. Thirty-six per cent believe the economy will not fully recover for another four to five years, while 29 per cent expect it to take six to 10. Twice as many fear it will take more than a decade or may never happen at all than foresee recovery by 2015.
Of course, such bleakness could mean that people have soured indefinitely on the government. Frustrated low-to-middle income voters are certainly toying with the UK Independence party, which will take support from the Tories in Thursday’s local elections. But it could also mean that voters are not itching to exchange this government for another. After all, there has been no great collapse in support for the Conservatives since 2010; they trail Labour by a modest midterm margin. Britons do not believe that politicians can make the economy better anytime soon but, confronted with news of strife in Europe, they fear they can make things worse. For an opposition party proposing serious change, this is the trickiest of public moods to work with.
When he was elected to lead the Tories in 2005, near the peak of the boom, Mr Cameron was all sunny charm and harmlessly waffly noblesse oblige. He is now relying on people’s sheer economic nervousness – their preference for the reality of slow growth over other imaginable terrors – to keep him in power. It is a grim showing for eight years of leadership but, in the circumstances, it is a serviceable political strategy. There are eight quarters to go until the next election. The Tories can win it without a thriving economy, and they can lose it with one.
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