David Cameron is sitting pretty, for now

The new perceived wisdom of the commentariat is to see the parallels between the situation faced by John Major in 1992 and the Prime Minister now as guides to the likely path that this Government will follow. In fact, the situation is entirely different.

Cameron's position is not as fragile as it first appears, argues Stephen Day
Cameron's position is not as fragile as it first appears, argues Stephen Day
For the time being, David Cameron is the master of his own destiny. His opposition is fractured (and fractious), he is the leader of a new Conservative Government with an almost blank slate, his party is united behind him and thanks to the Conservative manifesto he has a clear direction of travel to which the Conservatives are committed.

There is no equivalent of 'Black Wednesday' on the horizon and the economy is in good nick. Regarding Europe, Cameron is seeking reform and further derogations from the EU treaties that will ultimately lead to a referendum on membership of the European Union.  

This places Cameron in agreement with the majority of his parliamentary party whereas Major was not.

The majority – though only 11 on paper – is actually much more substantial in real terms, given the difficulties the opposition will face in coalescing around any issue in the Commons and the propensity of the 10 Unionists and UKIP's Douglas Carswell to support Conservative ends.  

This effectively doubles Cameron’s majority. Further the Prime Minister has effectively despatched his opposition across England.
The task for Labour is massive and may take many false dawns to overcome. The last time the party faced a similar electoral position was back in 1987 not 1992, and given the disparate challenges it faces from the SNP and UKIP in Northern Britain and the Conservatives in the South, the psephology is truly daunting for Labour and its next leader. 

Neil Kinnock’s challenges after a third successive Labour defeat in that 1987 look like a walk in the park by comparison – he was already going in the right direction but it took another decade for Labour to win.

The Liberal Democrats, who for many years provided an effective challenge to the Conservatives, in the South and West of England and in the suburban fringes of our great cities, have essentially been the victims of an electoral tsunami from which they may never recover – certainly their local government base and their representation in Parliament has not been at such a level since 1970. It has been a reversal not of one generation, but several.

UKIP, despite polling an impressive 12 per cent last week, is seemingly unable to cut through in our current electoral system – as its solitary seat testifies. It also appears to draw support from those who are working or lower middle class in the English regions including Labour’s northern heartland – not from the Conservatives as predicted.  

UKIP has not become an alternative Conservative front but is more a Poujadist party in the French style. As such it is not an immediate threat to Cameron and may be more of a challenge to Labour.

Finally, the SNP cohort is an opportunity for Cameron. Not only does it make his opposition in Parliament disunited and possibly irreconcilable, it presents a challenge principally to Labour. 

The SNP bloc is a useful foil for the Prime Minister to position himself against in England and Wales. Cameron’s answer to Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond will be to grant them everything they want and more – short of another plebiscite on independence, he will offer them full fiscal autonomy and confront them with the reality of the petroleum-based politics.  

With an era of low oil prices upon us, his gamble will be that Scottish voters will reject higher taxes to pay for independence and may even spark a mini Tory revival north of the border under the charismatic Ruth Davidson and the effective and canny David Mundell as Secretary of State.

Stephen Day is managing director, public affairs, at Burson-Marsteller

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