Are they underestimating the challenge of LD incumbents?
If you are thinking of betting on the Tories to get a reasonable-sized majority at the next election then can I suggest that you make two clicks.
Firstly you should go to UKPollingReport’s list of Tory targets with the swing required and count up how many Lib Dem incumbents have to be toppled for Cameron to get into working majority territory. You’ll find that twenty-eight of the party’s top 128 targets are in this category and should, according to conventional theory, be won on a swing of 6.7%.
Then you should go to Wikipedia’s summary page of the 1979 general election – the last time that the Tories regained power. It’s a long time ago – 30 years – but it’s the only valid precedent that we’ve got for next time.
Just look at the Liberal vote collapse which was hardly surprising given the Lib-Lab pact which had kept Callaghan’s administration in power. On top of that there was the famous Rinka scandal which led to the departure of their leader, Jeremy Thorpe, who on the day of the election was awaiting trial at the Old Bailey the following week on a charge of conspiracy to murder.
But here’s the lesson for next time: the massively reduced Liberal vote – down nationally by a quarter – had very little impact on the numbers of seats they won. The net loss of seats was just two – and one of those, unsurprisingly given the unprecedented circumstances, was Thorpe’s.
Thatcher’s Tories made big inroads into the Labour totals but failed to capitalise against incumbent Liberals. And if ever there was an election when the third party should have been shafted it was 1979.
My contention is that what happened in the last comparable election when the Tories were surging suggests that taking seats off the Lib Dems is a lot harder than it appears. Conventional theory based on the Uniform National Swing (UNS) simply does not apply and it is this that drives the seat calculators.
Yes the Tories have moved forward dramatically and yes many LD supporters will switch to Cameron’s party in seats where their vote can help get Labour out.
But, like in 1979, it will be a totally different election in seats where Lib Dem incumbents are facing the Tories. The core Tory call of getting Brown out will have much less potency. Thirty years ago the Liberals were in a far more miserable state than they are today yet the Conservative surge hardly touched them in their own seats.
There’s no doubt that the opinion polls have turned back to the Tories but the leads are nothing like as great as they were last summer. And this is where incumbent Lib Dems could be problematical. Sure a number of them are going to go – but not all 28. My estimate is that 14 is about top whack and that means that the Conservatives need even bigger swings to take out even more Labour seats.