IF a week is a long time in politics, then two weeks is twice as long – and the fortnight since this column last appeared seems to have been a particularly lengthy one for Prime Minister David Cameron.
A collective madness has descended upon his party, with rows about Europe and gay marriage punctuated by Cabinet ministers positioning themselves for what many now see as the inevitable post-Cameron succession battle.
Much of this is what Alastair Campbell used to call ‘froth.’ Whatever Michael Gove and Philip Hammond might dream about in bed at night, Mr Cameron is not going to be overthrown as Tory leader before the next election, and if he wins it, this bout of internal rancour will be long forgotten.
And if he loses, or fails again to win an outright majority, he’ll be overthrown anyway – but that’s par for the course for Tory leaders who fail to win elections and nothing that has happened over the past two weeks has altered that underlying reality.
What it may have done, however, is made it rather less likely that he will win in 2015.
Mr Cameron’s once-stated intention to stop his party “banging on about Europe” now seems laughable, while his attempts to detoxify the Tory brand by embracing liberal causes such as same-sex marriage seem only to have alienated his core supporters.
As I wrote in the context of the local election results, the only silver lining for the Prime Minister is that the country still seems less than overwhelmed by the idea of Ed Miliband as his successor.
So long as that remains the case, Mr Cameron may well be able to squeeze the UKIP vote by presenting the 2015 contest as a presidential battle between himself and a man who few voters of a right-wing disposition want to see in 10 Downing Street.
But for me, the most interesting political story of the past fortnight concerned not the fate of Mr Cameron, but the future of the Coalition government which he leads.
It appeared on the front page of The Times a week ago yesterday, and revealed that the Tories are now planning how they would govern without the Liberal Democrats for the last six to ten months of the Parliament.
“We need to have an idea of what we are going to do if at different points it does break up,” a source said.
The paper also quoted a senior Lib Dem as saying that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg needed to act to prevent them “drifting into a four party situation with us as the fourth party.”
For me, this is a story which has been crying out to be written ever since the Coalition was first formed.
As regular readers of this column will know, I have argued from the outset that the political dynamics are such that it will be impossible for the Coalition to survive a full five-year parliamentary term.
It has long been clear that, in order to avoid humiliation in 2015, the Lib Dems will need to start differentiating themselves from the Conservatives long before polling day.
However it is now becoming increasingly clear that if they are to win back some of their lost core supporters from the arms of UKIP, the Tories will also need to start differentiating themselves from the Liberal Democrats.
Here, for what it’s worth, is how I see it panning out. Next June’s European elections turn into a disaster for both governing parties, with Labour and UKIP forcing them into third and fourth place in the popular vote.
Both Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg will then have to face their party conferences in September 2014 with activists demanding how they are going to recover in time for an election that will then be less than eight months away.
If they try to stay together for the sake of the kids, it will almost certainly put Ed Miliband in Number Ten, in that the Lib Dems will find it impossible to woo back their disenchanted supporters from Labour while the Tories will struggle to win back theirs from UKIP.
The alternative – an amicable divorce with Mr Cameron leading a minority government for the final few months of the parliament - really is the only conceivable outcome.
Saturday, May 25, 2013
Saturday, May 04, 2013
Nearly a quarter of a century ago, a fringe party sent shockwaves through the political establishment after securing 15pc of the popular vote in the 1989 elections to the European Parliament.
Alas for the Green Party, it could not sustain the momentum of its unexpected success, and by the time of the following general election in 1992, it has sunk back into relative political obscurity.
So the big question in the wake of this week’s local elections is whether the UK Independence Party can succeed in 2013 where the Greens failed all those years ago, and achieve a lasting and significant political breakthrough.
Certainly the signs currently seem positive for Nigel Farage and his crew, who weathered a determined smear campaign by the big parties to emerge as the big winners of Thursday’s poll.
In the North-East, UKIP repeated its surprise second place at the Middlesbrough by-election last November by coming second to Labour in the South Shields contest to choose a successor to David Miliband.
While nobody expected the Conservatives to win here - it has been Labour or Liberal since the Great Reform Act of 1832 – the result was little short of a humiliation for the Coalition parties.
Not only were the Conservatives beaten into third place by Farage and Co, the Liberal Democrats were beaten into seventh place by a ragtag and bobtail collection of independents and fringe parties, including the BNP.
It suggests that, unless they can somehow extricate themselves from the Coalition in time to re-establish themselves as an independent force, the Lib Dems are facing electoral wipeout in the region come 2015.
But while South Shields provided an interesting snapshot of the current state of opinion in the North-East, UKIP’s strong performance there was but a foretaste of what was to come across the rest of the country.
When last I counted, the party had gained 139 councillors across England compared to a loss of 106 for the Lib Dems and 320 for the Tories.
The political impact was immediate, with a Tory Party that had earlier in the week attempted to brand UKIP as a bunch of racist clowns being forced to eat a very large slice of humble pie.
“It’s no good insulting a political party that people have chosen to vote for,” said Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday, effectively withdrawing his previous claim that UKIP members were “fruitcakes.”
The real headache for Mr Cameron’s Tories is that, with the general election now only two years away, they are no nearer knowing how to deal with the threat of the anti-EU party.
Announcing a referendum on UK membership to be held in the next Parliament was supposed to lance the boil – but Thursday’s results show it has had no effect whatever in curbing support for UKIP.
The situation is likely to get worse for Mr Cameron before it gets better. Mr Farage entertains legitimate hopes of first place in the popular share of the vote in next year’s Euro-elections, and a strong performance then will give his party even greater momentum going into 2015.
It is already looking very likely that, if TV debates are to be a part of the next general election campaign, the UKIP leader will have to be given a slot.
But if Thursday’s results were bad for the government, they were not a bed or roses for Labour either.
As ever, the party performed strongly in the North-East, holding South Shields and regaining the North Tyneside mayoralty, as well as winning 15 council seats to become the biggest single party in Northumberland and tightening its grip on County Durham.
But nationally, the party’s failure to win outright control of Lancashire and Staffordshire County Councils, or to do better in the South, leave a huge question mark over its ability to win in the key battlegrounds, as well as its claims to be the ‘One Nation’ party.
On what was a bad night for Mr Cameron, the only saving grace is that it was a not much better one for Ed Miliband.
Saturday, April 20, 2013
If being Prime Minister is inevitably the toughest job in British politics, then being a former Prime Minister is surely not that far behind.
Of the three surviving bearers of the title, the only one who has made anything approaching a decent fist of it over the course of recent years is that much under-rated figure, Sir John Major.
I will never forget his quiet dignity in defeat on that bright May morning in 1997 when he spoke of curtains falling and actors leaving the stage before going off to watch some cricket at The Oval.
And he has continued to be dignity personified throughout the ensuing years, never once succumbing to the temptation to criticise any of his many successors as Tory leader and only ever intervening in a way helpful to his own party.
In this, Sir John was determined not to follow the example of his predecessor Margaret Thatcher, who made clear her own intentions shortly after he succeeded her by declaring her skill at back-seat driving.
The Iron Lady, who was finally laid to rest this week, clearly found being an ex-Prime Minister rather harder to come to terms with than the actual job itself.
So, it seems, has Gordon Brown. When he lost the premiership in 2010, those of us who still counted ourselves among his admirers hoped he would rebuild his reputation by becoming a good constituency MP and backbench elder statesman.
Unfortunately, he has veered off into the biggest political sulk since Edward Heath’s, barely ever turning up at the Commons and, save for a rather self-justificatory attack on Rupert Murdoch, saying almost nothing of any value since leaving Number Ten.
But the former Prime Minister whose post-Downing Street career provides the greatest fascination, for me at any rate, is surely Tony Blair.
Aged just 54 when he left office in 2007, it was never remotely likely that the former Sedgefield MP would go gently into that good night as Sir John had done ten years earlier, and some sort of comeback was always on the cards.
For a time, this looked likely to be at European level, with the presidency of the European Council of Ministers the most obvious potential destination.
But thwarted in that ambition by the surprise elevation of Herman van Rompuy, his attentions have turned back to domestic politics and, specifically, the future of the Labour Party.
Mr Blair took to the pages of Labour house journal The New Statesman to warn party leader Ed Miliband that his opposition to welfare reform and spending cuts risked reducing Labour to a party of protest.
In another recent intervention, he declared that the result of the last election would have been closer had he still been leader, thereby implying that the party’s chances of winning in 2015 depend on the extent to which it stays true to his legacy.
This, incidentally, is poppycock. Whatever Mr Brown’s failings, had Mr Blair gone on and on and attempted to win a fourth consecutive term in the teeth of a recession, and with the baggage of Iraq still hung around his shoulders, he would have gone down to a landslide of 1997 proportions.
But no matter. Blair is back, and it is clear that the younger Miliband had better get used to the fact.
For now, the party leader’s stock response has been to turn Mr Blair’s own revisionist methodology against him, saying: “Tony Blair taught us the world changes. The world does change and we will learn our lessons."
But while this is undoubtedly true, he will eventually have to explain in much more detail how the Labour Party under his leadership has responded to those changes.
Over the past couple of weeks, Prime Minister David Cameron has had to suffer the inevitable unhelpful comparisons with an illustrious predecessor who won three straight election victories where he could only manage a hung Parliament.
Mr Miliband’s chances of going one better may well depend on how far, if at all, he can escape from Mr Blair’s long shadow.
Saturday, April 13, 2013
The first thing I need to say about Margaret Thatcher is that when it comes to the former Prime Minister, I can scarcely be regarded as a disinterested or objective observer.
I spent most of my early adulthood wishing she was no longer in Number Ten, and much of my later journalistic career was spent in areas such as South Wales and the North-East where the impact of her policies had been most adversely felt.
As Journal political editor from 1997-2004, much of my work revolved around the question of how the region should tackle the North-South divide which, if not created by her, was certainly sharply exacerbated during her long premiership.
So in the unlikely event that anyone has come here expecting to read another syrupy paean of praise to the Iron Lady following her death this week, it’s probably best to look away now.
Many millions of words have already been written and spoken about the woman who led Britain for 11 tumultuous years, but ultimately the debate seems to come down to the question of whether she saved the nation, or destroyed it.
Probably the answer is a bit of both. Looked at in the round, the Thatcher legacy suggests a strange ambivalent power for good and bad which seems to run through most of the policies with which she is most closely associated.
Take the iconic right to buy scheme, for instance. Yes, it enabled council tenants to buy their own homes, and the dramatic increase in social mobility it fostered helped break down the class barriers which held Britain back in the post-war years.
But the downside was that housing policy ceased to be a debate about who could build the most homes, and became instead a question of who could do most to artificially inflate the value of the increasingly limited number of homes available.
Then there were the employment laws. It is beyond question that prior to 1979 the power of the union barons had got out of hand and that Mrs Thatcher’s changes helped restore a measure of democracy to a nation in danger of becoming ungovernable.
Yet in smashing the unions, she also ushered in an era of job insecurity which has had a baleful effect on the national psyche.
I could go on. Deregulation of the City of London made it a world financial centre that spawned untold riches for Britain’s financial services industry, but led directly to the banking crisis that caused the 2008 crash and the subsequent recession.
Even the Falklands War, by rolling back the post-Suez defeatism in which British foreign policy had been enmeshed since 1956, paved the way for Tony Blair’s disastrous intervention in Iraq twenty years later.
When assessing the Thatcher legacy, therefore, the key question becomes could we actually have had the good without the bad? Was there, despite what the Iron Lady herself said, an alternative?
I would like to think so. While the challenges of globalisation would eventually have forced British industry to become more competitive, the impact of this would have been slower and less brutal than the wholesale destruction of our manufacturing base in the early 1980s.
It has to be remembered that, far from being an historical inevitability, Mrs Thatcher was in fact a very lucky Prime Minister.
Labour in 1980 put itself out of serious contention for power by choosing the wrong leader and then splitting, while a couple of Exocet missiles in the wrong place in 1982 might have sunk not just the Falklands task force, but her premiership with it.
For me, the most interesting counterfactual question about Mrs Thatcher is what would the country have been like had she never become Prime Minister or, alternatively, been ousted in 1982-83.
Had a Tory wet like Jim Prior or a Labour moderate like Denis Healey run Britain in the 1980s, and invested the proceeds of North Sea Oil in social reconstruction rather than tax cuts, would we have ended up with Swedish-style social democracy rather than US-style neo-liberalism?
Since those days, we seem to have become a politically more united country, but a much more economically and socially divided one.
And if forced to make a judgement, I think I like the Britain she created rather less than the one which she destroyed.