I just read this from Jonathan Freedland on the Guardian website this morning:
Nicholas Boles, head of David Cameron’s “implementation team” and one of his inner circle of advisers, has just said he hopes the Conservatives will not win by a landslide at the next general election.
In a moment that recalled Francis Pym’s notorious 1983 admission that he thought landslide governments dangerous – a statement that prompted Margaret Thatcher to sack him as her foreign secretary – Boles told a Guardian’s fringe meeting this evening that he hoped Cameron would win next year by a “decent, but not over-large majority”.
Why would a Tory activist from the “Notting Hil” set of Westminster Tories (George Osborne, Michael Gove, David Cameron, Ed Vaizey etc.) not want his party to have a landslide victory?
Well, first off a little back story to Nicholas Boles. He was the founder and Director of the Policy Exchange think-tank up until 2007 when he stood down upon becoming the candidate for the safe Tory seat of Grantham and Stamford. He was previously the candidate for Labour-held marginal seat of Hove in the 2005 General Election. Despite Boles being openly gay the Tory vote fell by 2% in what was meant to be a winnable seat for the Conservatives. He is also a signatory to the neo-conservative Henry Jackson Society’s ‘Statement of Principles.’ Boles can thus be seen as belonging to the neo-conservative/libertarian wing of the Conservative Party, which also happens to have a pro-European Union flavour about them as suggested in point five of the ‘Statement of Principles’ which states:
5. Stresses the importance of unity between the world’s great democracies, represented by institutions such as NATO, the European Union and the OECD, amongst many others.
The signatories to the Henry Jackson Society’s ‘Statement of Principles’ include Tory MPs Michael Ancram, Stephen Crabb, Michael Gove, Stephen Hammond, Greg Hands, David Ruffley, Ed Vaizey and David Willetts. It should also be said that several of the signatories include former and current Labour MPs, as well as academics and journalists.
So, why would Nicholas Boles be apprehensive of the prospects of a Tory landslide?
Surely a Tory landslide would mean a younger, more modernising kind of Conservative MP who could push through the kind fo agenda the ‘Notting Hill’ set have planned out, rather than being tied by elements of the ‘old right’ Cornerstone Group of the party or the One Nation conservatism of the Tory Reform Group?
A small majority for the Tories would mean that David Cameron would have to walk a thin line to retain the sympathy and support of both the Cornerstone Group and the Tory Reform Group, this is why he has been reluctant to voice his own personal opinion on a Lisbon Treaty referendum as to ensure that neither Cornerstone or the Reform group could dictate official Tory policy. David Cameron probably has more in common with the Euroscepticism of the Cornerstone Group than with the Reform Group’s pro-European sympathies, but he neither shares nor sympathises with Cornerstone’s social conservatism. The ‘Notting Hill’ set has no formal grouping, but instead can be found within the Tory think-tanks of Policy Exchange, the Centre for Social Justice and to a lesser extent, Reform.
However, we must look at some short pros and cons of having a landslide victory with an overwhelming majority.
- A landslide effectively means that the ruling party could push through any law or agenda as it wished off the back of popular public enthusiasm for that party or the leader of the party.
- It guarantees further successive general election victories as a landslide victory makes the task harder for the previous party of government to win back the seats and voters that it lost.
- It throws the opposition party into disarray as it tries to find a new identity and accepts the consensus of debate from the ruling party.
- It means no one hardcore faction can hold the cabinet to ransom on a particular issue. Backbench rebellions become much harder to organise.
- Landslide victories can create a ‘cult’ or ‘hope’ of personality in a particular individual to live up to the promises the leader had made going into the election. As Tony Blair proved, this can lead to constant disappointment as a result of landslide victories defining the ‘peak’ of a leaders’ popularity.
- Blame cannot be attached to smaller factions or groupings attempting to dictate policy. Responsibility is seen as presiding with the Cabinet and in the eys of the public, the Prime Minister. Scapegoating is much harder to spin.
- Landslides cannot always guarantee successive victories. Because landslides represent the peak of popularity, failure to resolve the pressing issue that voters gave the party a mandate to fix could result in heavy losses at the next election and a discrediting of the party over it’s ability to do what is right. In the case of David Cameron and the Conservatives this would mean not messing up the economy for the second time in the space of two decades.
- Landslides can often mean that influential opinion is shunned by the Cabinet and the concerns of factional groups in a broad-church are not always listened to regarding policy. In the long-run this can create a number of bitter enemies who may be willing to twist the knife in the back of a Government on its last knees. Landslides can promote a culture of arrogance and recklessness in decision making.
Those are just some of the short pros and cons of landslides, and I am sure there are many others which I have not mentioned or thought of. I however cannot see why Nicholas Bole would a landslide something to ignore. Perhaps he would wish to see a re-hash of 1983 when Thatcher was returned with enthusiastic support, or perhaps because landslides cause the party to hold onto leaders for too long and create missed opportunities for the ambitious, or perhaps it was just a slip-of the tongue and Andy Coulson gave him a short, sharp bollocking. I however believe that Europe was the motivation for Nicholas Boles saying what he did.
On the case of a referendum, if Cameron decides not to pursue with one in the next Parliament then he would risk the wrath of the grassroots and the Eurosceptic wing, if he does decide to push for a referendum and faced the prospect of a ‘No’ vote on the Lisbon Treaty then he not only isolates the Conservatives in Europe, but also Britain in Europe.
Dictating the terms of defence in Europe has meant that Labour (and Britain) have been in the mainstream of European affairs despite not signing up to the single currency. It has meant that Britain has carved out a key area where it can influence other European nations, this is something Tony Blair and Robin Cook did during the crisis in Kosovo and the Balkans in 1999, when Britain flexed it’s diplomatic muscle to commit NATO to the bombing campaign of getting the ‘Serbs out, peacekeepers in, refugees back [to their homes].’
Any ‘No’ vote in a referendum in the UK on the Lisbon Treaty would risk Britain’s position in Europe and internationally. Britain would be diplomatically de-funct. A landslide would have the potential of smashing the Tories into bigger rival factions which would create a very messy referendum contest. New MPs, some of whom chosen through primaries and from the grassroots, would feel obliged to honour the Eurosceptic sentiment of their constituents, others could be whipped into the ‘Yes’ camp from the pro-Europe wing, others would be stumped as to what to do. A landslide could make the Conservative party a volatile home to be in if it came to referendum on Lisbon.
However, a ‘decent majority’ could be enough to hold the Tory party together. In the event of a referendum, with a defeated but not down-and-out Labour party chasing a ‘yes’ vote along with the Lib Dems, it would mean that the Tories could remain a united party still up against a recognisable opposition that has not succumed to immediate in-fighting. In effect, it would be fighting against Labour rather than against its own factions. The pro-Europe camp may even be tempted to bite the bullet if it meant galvanising Eurosceptic populism from the public to finally smash Labour and send it into disarray and consolidate it’s position as the party of Government. We know that British and American neo-conservatives are not fond of a ‘social’ Europe and would prefer a ‘free market’ Europe with an integrated agenda on defence via NATO rather than a European standing army.
A ‘No’ vote on a potential referendum would consolidate the Conservatives reputation at home, but would then punish Britain in Europe, and perhaps internationally. A Tory landslide could end up being an achilles heel if ever there was a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.