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Make no mistake: a Labour-SNP government would be disastrous

The depressing truth about this election is that there is not much to make anyone expect a Tory victory. However, Conservatives may gain consolation from Ed Miliband’s travails

It’s hard to cheer up a Conservative at the moment. Things are every bit as bad as they look. The economy is roaring ahead but it seems that voters don’t much care: most see the recovery as something that’s happening to someone else.

Crime is at its lowest for 20 years, shop tills are ringing as never before, pensioner poverty is at an all-time low. Yet every professional forecaster says the Tories are now six days away from defeat. Not that they put it like that.

The forecasts, on average, put the Conservatives on course to become the largest single party with about 282 seats, 15 more than Labour. But in this scenario, Cameron could still lose — unable to form a majority even with the Liberal Democrats and the DUP.

The anti-Tory alliance (to use the phrase adopted by its matriarch, Nicola Sturgeon) would be the larger force. These forecasts, and the opinion polls, have hardly shifted in six weeks. They’re unlikely to change much in six days.

Opinion polls can, of course, be wrong — especially when it comes to underestimating Tory votes.

“I have a haunting feeling that there is a silent majority sitting behind its lace curtains, waiting to come out and vote Tory,” wrote Barbara Castle in the weekend before the polling day of 1970. She was right. “The pollsters have a lot of explaining to do,” grumbled Harold Wilson on his way out of No 10.

As they did in 1992, when John Major confounded pollsters by winning more votes than any prime minister in history. Opinion sampling is much improved since then, but that didn’t stop Israeli pollsters confidently predicting the defeat of Benjamin Netanyahu just a few weeks ago. The problem there was converting the national share of vote into prediction for a number of seats. That’s the problem here, too — a great many seats may come down to 500 votes. In which case, the polls are essentially meaningless.

A painful victory

For those dreading Ed Miliband’s rule, this — the fallibility of pollsters — is the straw to grasp at. The only real consolation for Conservatives is that Miliband’s victory may be more painful for him than any defeat. If the forecasters are right, then Alex Salmond will come down from Scotland, much as James I did, to rule England. His SNP would enstool Miliband unconditionally, so as to spend the next five years torturing him. Salmond recently told me the plan: avoid coalition, back Miliband on a vote-by-vote basis, extract a concession every time.

So every time Labour wants a Bill passed, Miliband would have to go on bended knee with an offering to Salmond, the deity of majorities. This would, in turn, make Ed Miliband very wary of passing Bills. When Salmond himself was running a minority government, the amount of legislation he fed to the Scottish Parliament dropped markedly. It’s arguable — just about — that an underactive Labour government is not as bad as a majority one. That the fewer laws they are able to pass, the better off the rest of us are.

For example, the SNP may very well decree that the High Speed Rail network must start in Edinburgh if it is to proceed at all. This would be unaffordable, and the whole wretched project could be scrapped. The effects of political deadlock are often exaggerated. When the Belgian parliament failed to produce a government after the election of 2010, the country enjoyed 589 glorious days without one. The economy surged and unemployment plunged — when a prime minister was eventually found, this progress halted.

Hung parliament an investor’s friend

Nor did the United States economy grind to a halt during its last government shutdown: it kept growing, at a steady clip. It’s quite possible that Britain’s recovery has its own momentum now, and could survive whatever obstacles Miliband throws in its way. That’s certainly the advice of Panmure Gordon, a stockbroker, to its clients. The British general election doesn’t matter too much to the recovery, it says — a hung parliament is an investor’s friend as it clips the wings of meddling politicians.

If Miliband wanted radically to reshape the tax system, or inflict a series of Soviet-style price controls, he would need parliamentary authority: “Investors favouring a conclusive election result should be careful what they wish for.” You can certainly argue that the economic differences between the two parties are not as great as they like to make out. Labour says it will raise the minimum wage to pounds 8 an hour by 2020 — but this is where it would end up anyway, if it continues its past trajectory.

Ed Balls said this week that he’d allow the 40 per cent tax threshold to rise with inflation — which means, in effect, that he’d match the Tories’ much-vaunted proposal to lift it to pounds 50,000 by 2020. The main difference between the two parties is that only one of them spells this out.

Even when it comes to national debt, they are not so far apart. George Osborne has increased it by 40 per cent, and wants to leave it there. Labour could raise it by another 7 per cent — irresponsible, certainly, but hardly likely to send us into a Greek-style death spiral.

Global markets remain desperate to lend money to governments. Even bailed-out Spain can borrow at 1.5 per cent, a better rate than prudent Britain is offered. Five years ago, Osborne could claim that the bond markets would hammer governments who did not deal with their deficits.

A little mayhem can’t be that bad

Looking around Europe now, it’s harder to make that claim. There are some Conservatives who despair so much at David Cameron that they plan not to vote Tory now, arguing that five years of Miliband would not be so much worse. And this is how to justify it: to argue that a little parliamentary mayhem can be no bad thing. That the fundamentals behind the recovery — low inflation, low interest rates — are hard to destroy. That the extra debt won’t be too bad or that Miliband will lack the parliamentary authority to do too much damage. Or that his government will be such a shambles that it could put Labour out of power for a generation.

But Ed Miliband wouldn’t need legislation to stop welfare reform, leaving entire communities to sit out the economic recovery — just as happened throughout the Labour boom years. He would not need a law to reject all future applications from new free schools, making sure that pupils in the poorest neighbourhoods are denied the choice in education that they so desperately need. He can simply order the Department of Health to stop working with private clinics, so those who cannot afford to go private no longer have this option on the NHS.

Those who already made their fortunes can perhaps afford to cast a protest vote next week, or abstain. Many can, in all honesty, afford the tax rises that Labour would impose. The brunt of the damage that Miliband can do would be borne by those least able to afford it. And this is the depressing truth about this election: there is not much, even now, to make anyone expect a Tory victory. And even less to make anyone imagine that a Labour government would be anything other than a disaster.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2015

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