It may be 1992 again, but the challenge facing the Conservative Party is to ensure that 2020 isn’t 1997 again
This morning David Cameron gave a victory speech to Conservative Party staffers. Amidst cheering from the gathered crowd he spoke about the sweetness of the victory and referred back to his experience as a young man in helping the Conservative Party win an unexpected victory in 1992.
The similarities of 1992 are striking: a Conservative Party leader with views which are more centrist than the centre of gravity within the party snatched an unexpected victory despite most of the polls suggesting a hung Parliament.
The Conservatives are ecstatic about winning a majority for the first time in 23 years, but they are aware that they will face many of the challenges that John Major faced trying to lead a Government with a small majority. John Major won a majority of 21 in 1992, which he saw whittled away due to by-elections and defections. David Cameron is expected to start his second term in Downing Street with a much smaller majority and will be fearful that he will face the same challenges as John Major when he was held to ransom by what he described as the Cabinet “bastards” on his right wing. As John Major ended up relying on the Ulster Unionist towards the end of his Government it is possible that David Cameron might end up turning to members of the DUP and UUP block of 10 MPs if he faces losses or defections during the next parliament.
There are a number of challenges coming up which will test the unity of the next Conservative Government. The promise of a European referendum has successfully kept the peace within the Conservative Party. However, once the referendum campaign starts, there are risks of significant disagreements within Government about the value of any renegotiation which the Prime Minister achieves and the desire for the ‘better off out’ wing of the Conservative Party to campaign for British exit from the EU whatever the deal.
Conservative plans to deliver £12 billion pounds of welfare savings will also be a challenge. Throughout the campaign, David Cameron was forced to deny that cuts are planned to child benefit and he has already stated that there won’t be any cuts to pensioner entitlement, but it is clear that some difficult decisions will have to be made. Whilst Conservative MPs might agree with the principle of welfare savings, specific cuts which hurt important sections of their electorate will be a difficult choice for those MPs with small majorities, especially as resisting radical cuts to welfare is one issue around which the disparate opposition will be able to reunite around.
As the Labour and the Lib Dems deal with the fallout from defeat and the SNP focuses on getting the best deal they can for Scotland, the MPs which Conservative ministers will worry about the most will be Conservative backbenchers, especially the officer holders of the Conservative 1922 Committee such as their Chairman, Graham Brady, whose power has been significantly enhanced by a small Conservative majority.
For a unionist party, but one which fought a campaign which was in part focused on fears about the influence of the party that was supported by the majority of Scots, managing the political change in Scotland will be a real challenge. David Cameron thought that he had avoided being the Prime Minister that saw the breakup of the Union after the referendum last year, but Scottish independence could be back on the agenda, especially if the SNP follow up their stunning results in the General Election with strong results in the Scottish elections next year.
David Cameron will, however, start his second term with his personal reputation enhanced. It was clear that his strong lead as chosen Prime Minister was an important factor in the Conservative result. Fears about the impact of UKIP was a potential flash point in relations between David Cameron and his back benchers in the last Parliament, but Conservative MPs look as if they have been able to see off the UKIP challenge. UKIP is beginning to appear more of a risk to the Labour Party in the longer term.
David Cameron spoke about wanting to govern for the whole of the UK in his victory speech at his count in Witney. Whilst he can relish his victory he knows that delivering on this vision over the next parliament will be challenge for him and his party.