Reshuffling the Jokers

Glen Newey

Oh, to be in Belgium, now the British party conference season is near. As a talking-point here in the brasseries of Euroland, the UK political season’s kick-off is bested only by Bernard Arnault’s application for Belgian nationality and Herman van Rompuy’s Elvis obsession. David Cameron looks increasingly like a man in over his head. The best that can be said of the reshuffle is that it didn’t make things much worse – but then, a reshuffle makes little odds when all the cards are jokers.

Talking of which, Boris Johnson’s oriflamme, fanned by Olympic triumph, now casts an ever more glooming shadow over Team Cameron. Johnson boasts a Blairish gift for grabbing the glory for others’ efforts. Which Old Etonian would you rather be ruled by? Despite his gift for adultery, and skulduggery with schoolmate gangsters that gives the phrase ‘Eton mafia’ a new meaning, Johnson benefits from the contrast with Cameron’s head-prefect moue. For now he has mail-order bride appeal. Some say he can’t become leader because he won’t get a seat in time to contest the leadership – presumably soon after Cameron blows the 2015 general election. But given the longevity of leadership contests, a way may be found even if Johnson hasn’t already quit as mayor.

Still, a dog-whistled ‘Vote Dave, get Boris’ platform could prove a winner in 2015. Despite policy failure on most fronts, Cameron is less frail than he may look. While the PM can hardly dodge the blame for the tanking economy, at least he has in his chancellor a figure whose detestability and incompetence outrank his own, as it was said of Nixon that he made Spiro Agnew his vice-president to insure against assassination. Not that Osbo has any chance of being elected leader – you’d get shorter odds on Godzilla. But like a Boris reversed, he makes the PM look a bit less bad.

Meanwhile, Labour is flattered by its current poll lead of 10 per cent. Though it’s producing some thoughtful policy ideas and Miliband now performs quite well at PMQs, he still comes over like an extra from The Office, and it may be too late to erase this from the public mind. The latest Ipsos MORI poll, which assumes a uniform swing, projects a 96-seat majority for Labour. But in mid-term with a comatose economy and a bungled budget behind it, the government could hardly expect better or, politically, be doing much worse. Much speculation has issued lately on Liberal Democrat plots to unseat Nick Clegg, on the plausible supposition that the party faces electoral rout if he remains leader. The Lib Dems’ options, however, are few. Maybe ditching Clegg for Vince Cable would perk up their prospects, but in truth the choice is probably between jumping from the 50th floor and the 55th.

This is where the Tories stand to gain. Psephology is an inexact science, especially when it comes to prediction: projecting the swing from the 2010 election has to reckon with demographic change, if not redrawn constituency boundaries, and differential patterns of voter abstention. But if there is one prediction that looks fairly mint, it’s that electors who turned out in force to vote Lib Dem in 2010 will, come 2015, choose to vote with their arses. Some may even vote Tory, on the Coca Cola principle: it’s the real thing, rather than a duff imitation. Some will go back to Labour but the Tories stand to hoover up far more Lib Dem seats than Labour does, not just in blue-head country like Devon North and Eastleigh, but also Aberdeenshire West & Kincardine, and Brecon & Radnorshire.

Cameron also has populist options before the poll. He can spike UKIP by offering a referendum on the EU, though not one giving an in-or-out choice. And he can dish the Scottish Nationalists and Labour in one blow, buying off independence with extra devolution, and rescinding from MPs for Scottish seats their voting rights on devolved bills – which would fix the West Lothian anomaly, and exploit the English Tory majority for those bills. About seven Scottish MPs will go anyway, if Cameron can get the boundaries redrawn. The future may be bluer than it looks.