Paul Linford: Once the euphoria has gone the reality will kick in for the Conservatives

The Journal's political columnist, Paul Linford, on why the Tories might find governing to be rather harder than they anticipated

Prime Minister David Cameron speaks outside 10 Downing Street
Prime Minister David Cameron speaks outside 10 Downing Street

Politics is a game of expectations, and given the relatively low expectations with which the Conservatives went into this month’s general election, their euphoria at the outcome was understandable.

Like John Major in 1992, David Cameron appeared to be almost alone in believing his party would win an outright majority, and hence he returns to Number Ten with his authority greatly enhanced.

He knows it won’t last for long. Firstly, his wafer-thin majority of 12 will ensure that, in time, he will become just as vulnerable to the whims of his backbench rebels as Sir John did two decades ago.

Secondly, his own somewhat bizarre decision to reveal that he does not intend to seek a third term in 2020 has started the clock ticking down on his premiership, ensuring that as time goes on, MPs will owe their loyalty less to him and more to whoever they think stands the best chance of succeeding him.

As I wrote in this column a fortnight ago, the battle to succeed Mr Cameron – and the precise timing of his departure – will eventually become the big background story of this Parliament.

Chancellor George Osborne, Home Secretary Theresa May and London Mayor Boris Johnson are currently the three main contenders, although the new Business Secretary Sajid Javid could yet come into the reckoning.

But that is for another day. For now, there are two big questions hanging over Mr Cameron’s new majority administration.

First, will the Prime Minister succeed in renegotiating Britain’s membership of the European Union and so ensure a ‘yes’ vote in the promised referendum, and secondly, will his plans for greater devolution for Scotland, Wales and the English city regions be enough to prevent the UK from flying apart?

It is these two questions which dominated the new government’s legislative programme as set out in Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech.

We now have the wording of the question for the in-out referendum on EU membership and, significantly, it seems likely to help the campaign to stay in, given that ‘yes’ is always a more positive message to take to the electorate than ‘no.’

But it remains a big gamble nonetheless. The logic of Mr Cameron’s position is that if he fails to achieve the desired renegotiation – as is quite likely – the government will have to recommend a referendum no vote.

However if having done so, the public still votes to stay in – as is also quite likely – the Prime Minister will find himself moving out of Number 10 much, much sooner than 2020.

On the devolution front, Scotland is to get the ‘devo-max’ recommended by the Smith Commission as well as keeping a watered-down version of the Barnett Formula in a last, desperate bid to keep it in the UK.

But it is the government’s plans for greater autonomy for English city regions as set out in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill that will be of greatest interest in this part of the world.

The government’s stated objective is to create a ‘Northern powerhouse’ which will bridge the prosperity divide with the South – but the current proposals may well create other divides in its place.

Those cities and regions that are simply not prepared to stomach an elected mayor are likely to be placed at a significant disadvantage, with more and more postcode lotteries opening up.

Besides Europe and devolution, the other key theme of the Queen’s Speech was the attempt to reposition the Tories as the ‘party of working people’ and lock Labour out of power for a generation.

Leaving Labour’s own problems aside for a moment, there is something that strikes me as slightly hubristic about this, given the Tories’ small margin of victory on May 7.

In the afterglow of their surprise victory, it would be easy for the Tories to mistake what was actually rather a grudging endorsement from the electorate as the start of a new era of Conservative hegemony.

But once the euphoria has worn off, the reality – governing for five years with a tiny majority – will soon kick in.

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