Expect direct tax cuts, more euro-sceptic rhetoric, and pressure on sterling and the bond markets.
This is the Conservative’s bedrock level of support. They polled 31% when defeated in the 1997 Labour landslide. Current average poll rating is 33%. It needs to be at least 37% pre-election to offer the Conservatives a fighting chance.
Mid-term, the Conservatives would not be too uneasy about bumping along with this poll rating. All governments are unpopular. But we are now moving well beyond mid-term and polling is fewer than 300 working days away.
Many Conservatives are beginning to get anxious about this apparent inability to get lift off in the polls. The economic indicators are favourable. Most had assumed economic recovery would bring electoral recovery. It hasn’t happened yet.
If, over the middle part of the year, it does begin to happen, there will be a sigh of relief, and the trajectory to 2015 will appear more certain. Nerves will calm.
But what if? What if the economy continues to yield no voter dividend? If neither the budget nor the party conference (and the unveiling of central election pledges) offers no sign of lift-off, nerves will be very jangled indeed.
What will happen?
There will be intense pressure on Cameron. But it will come from two contradictory directions. The right will argue that UKIP have siphoned off key support, and the response has to be to move towards UKIP ground and recover votes accordingly. The modernisers will argue that abandoning the centre ground will be fatal. Both will have their spokespeople and the party will appear divided – compounding its electoral problems.
Cameron and Osborne will not allow a big pull to the right. So ground will remain available to UKIP. The Conservative leadership will rely on the ‘don’t let Labour back in’ argument, to bring these voters back in line come polling day. But enough support will remain with UKIP to cost the Conservatives seats.
The attack on Labour will intensify. The Conservative’s pitch will move from the more positive ‘our programme is working’ line, to the negative ‘Labour will take us back to disaster’ line. But negative campaigning can work.
There will be a search for more populist positions.
The Eurosceptic stance will strengthen, with a pledge on a referendum, and more specifics on what has to be renegotiated. However, pro-European business groups and individuals will express concern, giving the party awkward moments
There will be more economic give-aways. Expect both the autumn statement and the 2015 election to spread some cash around. It will be presented as the dividends of recovery. Give-aways will be aimed at low and middle earners, through further hikes in the earnings thresholds for basic rate income tax, but also possibly for the 40% rate.
The effect will be to defer progress on deficit reduction, leaving more catching up to be done in the ’15-’20 Parliament.
The £ may suffer as a consequence, and expect increased pressure in the bond markets.
Written by James Plaskitt, former Labour MP for Warwick and Leamington.