After a turbulent year the Prime Minister enters 2016 stronger than ever writes Keiran Pedley. But will it last?
In many respects 2015 was a year of contradictions.
On the one hand, it was the year of the political insurgent. UKIP won the best part of 4 million votes at the General Election (though failed to make the breakthrough in seats it had hoped for), the SNP won 56 of 59 seats at Westminster and Jeremy Corbyn swept away the New Labour establishment to become leader of the Labour Party.
Of the above, the SNP surge in Scotland is of most lasting political significance. We had a good idea it was coming but the rise of the SNP in Westminster has changed British politics forever. It is hard to see Labour governing again without some form of SNP consent, yet to be successful Labour will need to â€˜sellâ€™ such an arrangement to English voters in a way it failed to do so last May. Perhaps â€˜Tory fatigueâ€™ will eventually sell it for them but we cannot assume so. Most importantly of all, whilst the SNP is so dominant north of the border, the question of Scottish Independence can never truly be settled.
On the other hand â€“ despite the political upheaval mentioned above â€“ it seems the more things change the more they stay the same. David Cameron now leads a majority Conservative government he would scarcely have dreamed of this time last year. The key to his success? A clear and consistent message based on strong leadership, economic competence and security. Whether good or lucky (you choose) Cameron has restored his fundamental appeal to his party (that he is a winner) and can seemingly choose the timing of his departure at some point this parliament. Meanwhile the fundamental â€˜rulesâ€™ of how elections are won â€“ in marginal seats on leadership and the economy â€“ appear intact.
Yet, as ever in politics, we should not get too carried away. Cameronâ€™s legacy is far from secure. The next stage of his premiership will be dominated by efforts to renegotiate the terms of Britainâ€™s membership of the E.U. and the resulting referendum campaign. Although the timing of such a campaign is not set, the current assumption is that Cameronâ€™s renegotiation will be completed by this Februaryâ€™s European Council meeting; with the referendum itself to follow at some point this year. The timing of the referendum may change â€“ Cameron has until the end of 2017 to hold one â€“ but if it is held this year 2016 may prove to be the most turbulent year of Cameronâ€™s leadership of the Conservative Party to-date.
Assuming â€“ as most do â€“ that Cameron campaigns for â€˜remainâ€™ he should be fairly confident of victory. Low public expectations on what his renegotiation will achieve â€“ 74% think little or nothing at all â€“ should perversely help him as anything he does deliver will be presented as victory. Polling on the referendum outcome itself is ambiguous. Telephone polling shows strong leads for â€˜remainâ€™ but online polling shows a close race. However, it is reasonable to suggest that if the Prime Minister backs â€˜remainâ€™ then â€˜remainâ€™ will prevail. It is not clear that the â€˜leaveâ€™ campaign can answer the question of â€˜what comes nextâ€™ in the event of withdrawal and the public currently sees withdrawal as more risky then remaining by a margin of 45% to 36%. This perceived risk of withdrawal is only likely to grow once the Prime Minister recommends â€˜remainâ€™ and the business community backs him. The â€˜leaveâ€™ campaign has it all to do.
If Cameron can be confident that he will carry the referendum vote he can be far less certain as to how his party will react. It is safe to say that the Conservative Party has never settled its position on Europe and the referendum campaign promises to be a divisive one â€“ with several Cabinet ministers expected to campaign to â€˜leaveâ€™.Â Even more importantly, there is strong grassroots support for â€˜leaveâ€™ among Conservative supporters. 71% told the influential conservativehome website in November that they would vote to leave.
The real risk for David Cameron (and perhaps more so George Osborne) is that in winning the E.U. referendum they lose the Conservative Party. With strong grassroots support for â€˜leaveâ€™ it is surely inevitable that a â€˜big beastâ€™ such as Boris Johnson or Theresa May will throw their weight behind the â€˜leaveâ€™ campaign. A limited renegotiation followed by a vote for â€˜remainâ€™ may not concern the general public too much but cries of â€˜betrayalâ€™ will be strong within the Conservative Party. This will provide a major headache for Cameron in his remaining years as Prime Minister (perhaps even a leadership challenge) and could prove fatal to George Osborneâ€™s chances of succeeding him. After all, what is the use of being a â€˜winnerâ€™ if your supporters cannot agree on what â€˜victoryâ€™ is?
So far David Cameron and George Osborne have emerged unscathed â€“ even strengthened â€“ during a period of intense political change in the UK. However, if the E.U. referendum does come this year that may all be about to change.
Keiran Pedley is an elections and polling expert at GfK. You can follow Keiran on twitter at @keiranpedley