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Was Cameron Lucky to win the 2015 UK General Election?

Oxford Professor Simon Wren-Lewis wrote an interesting piece in the immediate aftermath of David Cameron’s win in the 2015 General Election, to which I added a comment which I have copied below. S W-L (as some of his commenters refer to him) pointed out some of the luck Cameron had had, but was that it? Was his election victory purely down to luck?

Of course one cannot ignore the role of luck in any success in life, but I think it dangerous to underestimate Cameron’s abilities if you ever want to beat him. He seems to understand the formula quite well.

First of all, from being elected party leader he worked on being accepted as an “OK guy” at the time when being Green was all the rage. Cue photoshoots with Huskies and lots of snow, pics of “Dave on a Bike” and so on. At the same time he kept on going on and on about Labour spending too much. A simple argument for simple minds (aka readers of the Daily Mail).

Next step, after getting elected he put caveats on those things the LibDems wanted in order to join forces (eg “you can have a PR referendum, but only on AV and only with my wording”) and didn’t let them have the things Clegg had promised the electorate (eg to break the tuition fees pledge, clearly the biggest LibDem political error ever). At the same time, whenever there was financial bad news to be announced, it was invariably a LibDem who announced it, when there was good news, a Tory was on TV making the announcement. And of course, neutralising Vince Cable, one of the few LibDem voices with any great gravitas by making him follow the cabinet line – he was trundled out in front of the cameras to really underline how serious things were financially – was not luck either, but political genius, damn him!

Then there was the Scottish referendum. i feel pretty sure the SNP wanted DevoMax to be one of the choices, but no, Cameron again insisted on a simple “In, Out” choice. This moved all those in Scotland who hated control from Whitehall but did not want to leave the Union from a mild rejection of London to an acceptance of the status quo. He must have known that all the parties with large English stakes would have to set themselves against the SNP, meaning they would all be seen to be supporting Cameron’s position and telling Scottish voters “We three are all the same”. This could not hurt Tory aspirations in Scotland because they had hardly anything to lose, but if he could undermine Labour’s Scottish credentials in any way that would erode Labour’s hold on one of their core heartlands, and hit the LibDems too.

All the while he had to fight off his own right wing Eurosceptic back benchers, and to buy himself time he offered the EU referendum. Having won one and not lost another through the framing of the text of the questions asked, I am sure he felt confident he could also handle the EU vote after all these other things had been dealt with first.

In the run up to the General Election Cameron tried every method he could to undermine support for his main opponents until he saw that one of them worked. When his earlier ruse of framing the Scottish referendum as a simple Yes-No choice had positioned his opponents where he wanted them (vulnerable) he could then use the polling arithmetic to galvanise English nationalists to vote with him for fear of Scottish Nationalists, while at the same time weakening support for UKIP where most of his own lost supporters had been deserting to.

Now, having sucked out some UKIP support because of his EU In-Out referendum promise and having weakened his back benchers at the same time, his use of the SNP threat weakened UKIP even further. Now we know the results of the GE and UKIP only got one seat, and only 3.5 million votes, his need for big concessions from the EU has reduced in order to win a “Stay in the EU” vote since he knows the support for UKIP is much less than the noise and publicity they get suggests. This will also reduce the temptation for his back benchers to defect (the Reckless effect) while at the same time weakening their arguments about leaving the EU (which will seem more of a political wasteland to them now).

So, what next? Well, following his pattern so far, he will want to quickly undermine his main opposition. Since this is possibly the SNP you can expect him to offer something to them that will make them look like they are a) breaking their electoral promises and b) working with the Tories. However, he won’t want them too weakened or else Labour will gain strength. He won’t want them to remain so strong either though, and with Scottish Elections in 2016 there is a year for him to mess their reputation up. After that he will only have to focus in 2017 and a referendum, the wording of which he will choose. And all the time he will be releasing story after story to the press to distract and deflect their attention from his mistakes.

Whatever happens next, I don’t think you will be able to say it is entirely due to luck. Any good chess player will understand this. I don’t agree with his policies, and I absolutely dislike his bullying, haranguing style and barefaced lies – but you do have to admire his political nous.

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