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Nov 21, 2014 | 19:36 GMT

5 mins read

Cameron Fails By-Election Test

Cameron Fails By-Election Test
(Carl Court/Getty Images)
Summary

In early November, Stratfor wrote that British Prime Minister David Cameron would face three major hurdles during the month. The Rochester by-election on Nov. 20, which saw the victory of the U.K. Independence Party's Mark Reckless over David Cameron's Conservative Party candidate, was the third and last. So, it is time for an assessment of his performance.

As polls and bookmakers had long predicted, U.K. Independence Party candidate Mark Reckless won the key Rochester and Strood by-election with 42 percent of the vote. David Cameron's Conservative Party candidate, meanwhile, came in second with 34.8 percent. This is the U.K. Independence Party's second seat in Westminster, after its first was won under similar circumstances in Clacton last month — both by-elections involved Tory politicians defecting to the U.K. Independence Party and winning back their seats under the new banner. This result is important because it consolidates the U.K. Independence Party's growing presence in British politics leading up to the general election scheduled for May 2015, and both Reckless and the U.K. Independence Party's leader Nigel Farage have hinted that there could be more Tory defections still to come.

On Nov. 4, Stratfor wrote that Cameron's Conservatives faced a difficult month, with three awkward hurdles to tackle, each with the potential to severely undermine the party's reputation and standing. These were: an unexpected EU bill, a vote in parliament on a controversial European arrest warrant, and the Nov. 20 Rochester by-election. With all three hurdles now passed, we can analyze how successfully they were handled.

The Outcomes

On Nov. 7, Chancellor George Osborne proclaimed victory in his negotiations over the EU bill, announcing a "real win for U.K. taxpayers" having both "halved" the bill and delayed its payment to 2015. Only the last part of that statement is true. Rather than halving the bill, money from an existing rebate from the European Union to the United Kingdom had been included in the bill's payment. This attempt to finesse the problem away with accounting trickery was broadly unsuccessful. Most of the British media spotted the ruse and decried it as "smoke and mirrors." Moreover, a poll conducted Nov. 9-10 had only 16 percent of respondents believing that Osborne had actually obtained a "good deal" for Britain. This failed escape act dealt a blow to public perceptions of the party's trustworthiness, which is unhelpful six months before an election.

On Nov. 10, the House of Commons was scheduled to debate and vote on the controversial arrest warrant, with rumors circulating that 100 Conservatives were set to vote against their government. Instead, the warrant was thrown in with a large number of other measures to be voted on, and the house saw an unusually protracted day of procedural wrangling. The day ended with the notionally neutral Speaker of the House berating the government for perceived bad behavior, and with the would-be Conservative rebels left feeling cheated. It remains unclear who was fully to blame for the confused day. Indeed, it was probably the speaker's fault, but the importance rests with perception. The danger leading up to the European arrest warrant vote was that it would crystallize a split within the Conservative Party, with more politicians defecting as a result. In this case the vote was avoided, but at the cost of further exacerbating Tory frustration, creating a larger problem further down the line. 

The Rochester by-election was Cameron's last hurdle, and he was determined to overcome it. Having promised to "throw the kitchen sink" at the campaign, he ordered all his Cabinet ministers to visit Rochester at least five times. Cameron himself also visited the constituency. The seat was considered winnable due to Reckless' lower personal popularity in the district compared to Douglas Carswell, the U.K. Independence Party's winner in Clacton. Furthermore, it had previously been 271st on the U.K. Independence Party's list of winnable seats in Britain, its populace being more affluent than in the areas where the party has gained the most traction. The fact that these efforts were ultimately in vain is not only a personal embarrassment for Cameron, but it also a consolidation of the U.K. Independence Party's position as a serious force in British politics. 

Cameron's Next Steps

In summary, Cameron's government, when faced with the three hurdles, walked around the first two — suffering reputational damage as a result — and fell at the last. Within the next month he is expected to deliver a speech laying out his policies on immigration, and making clear what concessions he hopes to obtain from the European Union concerning free movement of peoples across Britain's borders. This speech will be important, as it will be carefully studied by both the public and members of his own party, who will judge whether it satisfies their doubts over the prime minister's stance on the United Kingdom's relationship with Europe.

November's three failures will increase the pressure on the prime minister to take an even harder line with his European counterparts than he might have originally planned to, increasing the chance of a split with Europe. Going into the May election, a recent poll putting the Conservatives ahead of the sinking Labour Party for the first time might have given Cameron some cause for cheer. However, in truth, the only force that is on the up in Britain continues to be the U.K. Independence Party.

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