A crucial choice is being made which will profoundly affect the fortunes of the Liberal-Democrats at the next election.
So it’s rather unfortunate that we don’t get a say in it, and the people least qualified to make a competent choice are the ones who get to decide. That’s Tory party members, of course.
Not that we haven’t already breathed a sigh of relief. Ken Clarke would have hugely improved the political situation in Britain, but at a cost to us of seats not won, and perhaps hard-won-seats actually lost.
Both the Davids have already demonstrated that they lack the required equipment to revive the Tory party. Davis David has proved he can’t make a speech to a friendly audience on what should have been his virtual coronation day. Cameron David has now shown us that he doesn’t know how to hold a television debate. If he can’t hold his own against Davis in the sterile conditions of the TV studio, what hope does he have against Blair or Brown in the palace of Westminster?
But, still, the choice affects us profoundly. Cameron has his eyes much more firmly set on electoral victory. Already he is appealing to the non-Tory country. He followed up his debating experience with a visit to non-Conservative voters pledged to support him. He is carefully avoiding policies which could come back to haunt him in 2009, gambling on his personal appeal to get him through the leadership contest without them.
Davis, on the other hand, is forced as the underdog to focus on the Tory membership. He is telling them what they want to hear. Underneath the relatively smooth exterior we hear the rumblings of the old Tory self-deception — “we lost the last elections because we were not right wing enough”.
It should be fairly clear by now that while Cameron has more strategic vision, Davis has more political ability. Cameron has accurately noted what everyone else has seen for a long time: to win an election, the Tories must broaden their support. Davis is – right now – playing to the activists: more typical Tory policies, pronounced with more of a sneer at the politically correct liberal elite (by which I suspect he means people like us), transmitted by an army of foot-soldiers considerably more right wing than he.
Where does leave us?
We are now faced with three inconceivables for the next election. It is inconceivable that the Labour party, which grows more dissheveled by the day, will hold onto power for a fourth term. Brown’s economy is beginning to go off, and for all the popular distaste with Blair’s silky spinning, the chancellor does not have the public charisma to inspire the country.
It is also inconceivable that the Tories will revive to seize power themselves. Neither David nor David measures up to their opponents. We have seen a gigantic game of Weakest Link, where Tory MPs have seen off the two candidates most likely to damage their golden boy’s prospects, leaving the Davids in a protracted game of sudden death, while we all know that the strongest link has already been dumped. The Tory problem, though, is not the leader. It’s demographics — the average age of Tory members has been in the sixties for some time now — it’s policy — Britain is no longer ready to swallow the right wing ‘common-sense’ in the way it was under Thatcher — it’s boundary changes, which require a huge swing for a modest majority — and it’s the rebellious, rabbelous behaviour of Tory MPs for four parliamentary generations. They did for Thatcher (bless), they emasculated Major, they fought each other under Hague, they assassinated Duncan Smith, they allowed Howard to sink into the mire.
But it’s also inconceivable that Liberal-Democrats will take power this time. At our current rate of improvement, we will require 28 general elections, or 132 years, to achieve the 330 or so seats required for a majority. People are, of course, touting round the prospects of a Lib-Dem Tory coalition at the next election. But it does make you wonder if these people actually know any Liberal-Democrats personally.
And yet, and yet, and yet. Demographically, electorally, policy wise and in many other ways, Liberal Democrats have the greatest potential for growth. Our membership is younger, and we are the most popular party among young voters. Our policies are unashamedly centrist: the much-fought over centre ground is our natural terrain. Our leader has retained the highest trust rating of any mainstream politician in every poll since he was elected. And, although we did not win even half of the seats we wanted last time, some of the seats we did win should be sending cold shivers down the Tory spine. Ten years ago, if anybody had suggested that Solihull could fall, they would have been laughed out of court.
One thing is not inconceivable, but inevitable: there will be a general election around 2009, and one of these three inconceivables will become concrete reality.