Perhaps They're Only Teasing

By Carlton, David | The Spectator, January 4, 1997 | Go to article overview

Perhaps They're Only Teasing


Carlton, David, The Spectator


A PANEL of 20 psephologists and political analysts, retained by Reuters, is unanimous in expecting that the general election will be held in either April or May (a clear majority plumping for the latter). And by 19 votes to one - the dissentient being myself - it believes that the Labour Party will emerge from the contest with an overall majority.

As John Major's accident-prone Government limps sadly into 1997, is there, then, any realistic possibility that so many experts could find themselves confounded? Actually, if the past is any guide, the answer is yes. The forecasting record of the nation's mainstream psephologists is rather unimpressive, as was amply demonstrated at the last general election. We need, in short, to bear in mind the story, hopefully not apocryphal, that a janitor once won the general election 'sweep' at Nuffield College.

What, then, are the grounds for thinking that the experts could be wrong again in 1997? First, let us consider the matter of the date. There must of course be a theoretical possibility that the Government will be brought down in an early vote of no confidence, as a result of the Ulster Unionists making common cause with Labour and the Liberal Democrats. But this seems most unlikely. For it would make no long-term strategic sense to risk magnifying the electoral defeat of the only major party committed to the unaltered preservation of the quadripartite United Kingdom Union.

But an early election may conceivably come about with or without Ulster Unionist intervention. For who can say when we shall see the long-threatened showdown in the Conservative Party over Europe. It may even be that the Prime Minister himself will soon choose to precipitate such an event by belatedly falling into line with the majority of his colleagues, who see decisive electoral advantage in proclaiming that a re-elected Conservative government would not favour early entry into a singlecurrency arrangement. He could even combine the announcement of his conversion with an immediate dissolution of Parliament in an attempt to make it the central issue in the general election and to wrong-foot his Conservative opponents. And if he did this at a very early date, there would be the additional bonuses that the electoral register would be an old one and that the election would be fought in winter conditions - both usually held to be disadvantageous for Labour. True, the Conservatives ended up with four fewer seats than Labour in the only recent February election - in 1974. But the margin of defeat was much narrower than it might have been had Edward Heath served on to the bitter end of a troubled term.

Let us assume, however, that the experts are correct in supposing that the general election will not be held until April or May. Are they likely in that case to be vindicated also with the election of a majority Labour government? It is difficult indeed to deny that the portents look grim for Mr Major. Labour's lead in the opinion polls is around 20 per cent - massively larger than at a comparable stage in any previous Parliament. Yet I do not rule out the chance that a transformation could still take place. A number of possibilities deserve consideration.

The first is that a thunderbolt could even at this late stage entirely alter the political landscape. What if, for example, either Mr Major or Mr Blair were to fall under a bus or to be consumed by a major scandal, or simply (in Mr Major's case) to quit in protest at the disloyalty of colleagues? A sudden change of this kind could have a great impact on the opinion polls. One recalls, for example, that when Margaret Thatcher was replaced by Mr Major there was an astonishingly rapid rise in the Conservative ratings. The Conservatives should not assume, however, that an improvement is the only possibility. If, for example, Mr Major quit in disgust, the consequence might be meltdown rather than spectacular recovery.

A second and more probable development is that Mr Major and his Cabinet will decide to fight a spring election on the issue of the single European currency. …

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