The Chinese general Sun Tzu once wrote that “the good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy.” The Conservatives might be about to put such advice into practice.
The Times reported earlier this week that constitutional experts have determined it would be possible for a new Prime Minister to “‘engineer’ a sudden vote to get a fresh mandate.” Meaning it’s entirely possible we could face a General Election before 2020 if David Cameron were to stand down before the end of the parliamentary term. The news will have peaked the interest of the likely and unlikely contenders for the Conservative leadership. And it puts a further obstacle in front of Labour in the Party’s quest to return to Downing Street.
Last week, Margaret Beckett published her report into what went wrong for Labour last May. It was the victim of considerable derision for largely exonerating Ed Miliband. Clearly the Party needs to understand how it could have better connected with the electorate. But what the report in The Times shows is that the consequences of electoral defeat could be far greater than a lurch to the left by the Labour leadership and many within the rank and file.
It’s not unreasonable to say the Tories are giving serious thought as to how best to maximise their electoral chances. Boundary changes for constituency seats have long been mooted, and if implemented would present Labour with a nearly insurmountable mountain to climb.
With David Cameron having intimated he will stand down before the next election, his potential successors will be aware of two things. Firstly, they’ll be conscious of the potential to fight an election campaign against Jeremy Corbyn, who continues to struggle in opinion polls despite his standing amongst many within the party membership. And, secondly, the likes of George Osborne and Boris Johnson will recall the example of Gordon Brown. It’s easy to remember Mr Brown as the Premier who led Labour to defeat. But mere weeks into his premiership, his poll numbers were high and his authority absolute. He could have called an election and would have almost certainly won.
Instead, Mr Brown rather bottled it. Those wishing to succeed Mr Cameron will have little desire to follow his example. The head of the Institute for Government has told The Times that an early election would be possible but would be a “hell of a gamble”. But a hard-headed Conservative Party intent on retaining Downing Street could well view waiting until 2020 as a bigger risk.
Labour might be about to find out that Sun Tzu was right. And that the cost of defeat last May is steeper than they might have initially thought.