IT was the Tories wot should’ve won it. David Cameron entered this election with huge advantages over his rivals. The party’s coffers were bursting with almost £18m – the maximum that can be spent on a campaign – practically outstripping the Labour and Liberal Democrat war-chests put together. Nearly every newspaper came out in support of the Conservatives, with the exception of The Guardian, which ended up switching to the Liberals, and The Mirror, the only paper to stay true to Labour.
If that weren’t enough, the country is dragging itself out of the most severe recession in a generation, led by a Prime Minister that is massively unpopular. Labour also ran a terrible campaign: Gordon Brown limped from disaster to disaster, typified by the awful “bigot-gate” gaffe, surely one of the worst mistakes a politician has made in modern times. A severe slump; an ineffective and disliked opponent; a friendly press; a multimillion pound campaign. If the Tories can’t win a majority in these circumstances, when can they? Labour has done badly, there is no doubt about that; it has fallen to its worst share of the vote since Michael Foot took on Margaret Thatcher in 1983. But this should have been a rout.
So, where did it all go wrong? Last week, Ken Clarke told me that the Tories didn’t really know how to fight an election with the public finances in such a parlous state. The Tories do best when offering tax cuts: they energise the base and appeal to the public. Just look at the bold inheritance tax cut that forced Brown to call off an election in 2007, at the height of his honeymoon (a decision that must keep the Prime Minister awake every night). The promise to scrap most of Labour’s rise in National Insurance, which galvanised the support of high-profile business leaders like Sir Stuart Rose, also saw the Tory poll lead edge up. But in the event, the cupboard was bare; economist after economist lined up to say the Tories would almost certainly have to raise tax.
In place of tax cuts, there came touchy-feely politics masterminded by head of strategy Steve Hilton. Cameron made odd proclamations about how he didn’t like his daughter listening to Lily Allen’s “unsuitable” music; he pegged his manifesto launch to the wonkish idea of a “big society” that called on voters to become “compulsory volunteers”; and he pledged to maintain spending on international aid, a decision that left voters cold considering the terrible economic situation at home.
Then there were the things the Tories refused to talk about. Pollsters continually said that immigration was one of the main concerns of voters, but Cameron decided to steer clear (perhaps understandably so, after the media rounded on Michael Howard for raising the issue in 2005). But Michael Gove’s revolutionary schools policy, that would deliver private-standard schools to state-funded kids was a winner. The Tories hardly mentioned it.
When Cameron became leader in 2005, he always said he wouldn’t be able to win an outright majority in one election, that it would take two attempts before he could govern convincingly. Based on today’s results, that theory could be put to the test sooner than he had hoped.