“This is a victory for the true believers.”
Paul Keating so described his Labor government’s improbable triumph in the 1993 Australian election, which had been trailed by commentators and pollsters as “unloseable” for the centre-right Coalition.
Calculating pragmatism brought Keating success over an ideologically lazy opposition whose leader spoke to his grassroots but could not connect with the voters in the middle ground.
That’s the difference between true believers and political dreamers. Where the latter prioritise the dream, the former are motivated by the truth of the cause; that is, the long-term best interests of the party, even as more fervent ideologues demand noise and detect treason in hushed, nuanced tones.
No one expected David Cameron’s electoral coup because it too was a victory for the true believers. The jackals who skulk the Tory backbenches were kept on a tight leash during the campaign but the sense that they were simply waiting for the Prime Minister’s defeat to pounce and tear him and the Tory modernisation project to shreds was palpable.
But Cameron had charted a course back to Number Ten and stuck to it, even as here and there schooners of doubt sailed onto the horizon and in the final weeks formed a flotilla of received wisdom that the Tory campaign was sunk.
His return to Downing Street was achieved by tearing almost as many strips off his modernisation project as his backbenchers dream of doing. Few prime ministers trash their own brand so audaciously and at times it seemed like Cameron was running not so much as the hapless Leader of the Opposition as against his himself circa 2005. Still, he did so to address the centre ground which has seemingly shifted rightwards in recent years.
The consequences of this strategy will play out in the course of this Parliament. The true believer Cameron may come to regret winning an overall majority of 12 seats that leaves him beholden to the political dreamers on the benches behind him. They will get their referendum on EU membership and may even see some of their pet projects – replacement of the Human Rights Act, restrictions on European inward migration, repeal of the hunting ban – come to fruition. But their more radical ambitions on tax and public sector expenditure will be frustrated by a sober and cautious leadership.
The backbenchers are singing the Prime Minister’s praises today and swearing loyalty to the first Tory leader to secure an outright majority since John Major in 1992. But if a week is a long time in politics, five years is an eternity and every tack centre from the top will stoke discontent in the ranks. The awkward squad knows how to count to 12; the Prime Minister knows he has to count far beyond that. This is going to be a very interesting Parliament indeed.
These, however, are considerations for the weeks and months to come. For now, what matters is that Cameron won. Less handsomely than his defiance of received wisdom makes it seem but respectably given the political landscape. As he posed for pictures with his new MPs outside the Commons on Monday, the quiet satisfaction of Friday morning was replaced by a broad beam. True believing had paid off.
There was another true believer at Westminster today. Nicola Sturgeon marshalled her battalion of Nationalist MPs outside St Stephen’s Entrance for the benefit of the cameras. Out trooped scores of quiet, diffident souls evidently humbled by the scale of their achievement and the expectations attaching to them. (Alex Salmond was there too.)
As a photo-op, it didn’t work because there were too many of them to cram in between the building and the security barrier. That’s the scale of the Nationalists’ win on Thursday night; there’s too many of them to put on a media event without rigorous planning.
Sturgeon, like Cameron, pulled off a Paul Keating victory on Thursday. The longstanding party convention that a majority of Scottish MPs at Westminster was sufficient for a unilateral declaration of independence has receded and the First Minister even disavowed the notion that it would constitute a mandate for holding a second referendum.
This delays the dream of independence but, also like Cameron and probably more so, Sturgeon commands the loyalty of her backbenchers. She has brought them to a point of political strength that her predecessors could scarcely imagine. What will happen, though, when the dreamers start to grow impatient? Plodding through the division lobbies on late-night votes is not the stuff idealists live for.
For Sturgeon as for Cameron, the challenge is to hold true to the strategies that brought success and keep faith with the voters who helped deliver victory. But in the nature of that win, the dreamers have been been give a measure of influence that makes them more powerful, more dangerous than dreamers usually are. This is a victory for the true believers but the political dreamers will glimpse in it an opportunity too.