Sunday, January 01, 2012

If you want to see the future of politics, just listen to 'God'

Following on from last week's Review of 2011, here's my look ahead to the political year 2012.

Predicting the future is always a risky business, but anyone looking for some pointers as to the direction which British politics might take over the next few years could do worse than listen to ‘God.’

Of course, by that I don’t mean him upstairs – though doubtless he might also have something to say about it - but the man who is universally known by that nickname in Westminster circles – the outgoing Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell.

Sir Gus officially retired yesterday as Britain’s most senior civil servant, but not before breaking the habit of a lifetime and firing off a few opinions of his own in a series of exit interviews with assorted media outlets.

In them he warned, among other things, that the greatest challenge facing Britain over the coming years would not be the state of the economy or even its future place in the European Union, but simply holding the United Kingdom together.

Sir Gus’s comments served as a necessary corrective to the fact that the implications of Scottish and Welsh devolution for the rest of the UK have sometimes been overlooked.

In last week’s column reviewing the political year 2011, I noted that the referendum on reform of the voting system held in May last year did not, in the end, prove to be the political game-changer that some of us thought it might be.

But there was something else that happened on the same day which may well prove to be of much greater significance in the longer-term – the outright victory of Alex Salmond’s Scottish Nationalists in the elections to the Scottish Parliament.

We have already seen how Mr Salmond is prepared to use such issues as the Eurozone crisis to press the case for Scottish independence, and we can expect much more of this in the coming year.

On the future of the Coalition, however, Sir Gus was less outspoken, saying that he expected it to run its course until a general election in 2015.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that he should take such a view, in that he played a pivotal role in bringing the Coalition together in the first place, and thus has an emotional stake in its long-term survival.

But ultimately, the Coalition will survive only as long as it is in the Conservatives’ interests for it to survive – and it is here that the underlying political dynamics may well be shifting.

With his party enjoying an unexpected mid-term lead in the opinion polls, might Prime Minister David Cameron be tempted over the next 12 months to try to convert that into the outright Commons majority that eluded him in May 2010?

We shall see. But Mr Cameron is perhaps fortunate in that the issue most likely to bring about a split between the Coalition partners is one on which his party enjoys far greater public support than the Liberal Democrats, namely Europe.

As John Redwood pointed out earlier this month, an election over the UK’s future relationship with the EU would be a very easy one for the Tories to win, and Mr Cameron would not be human if he did not at least toy with the idea of engineering one.

But if that Tory opinion poll lead is raising questions about the future of the Coalition, it is raising even more urgent ones about the future of Labour leader Ed Miliband.

His survival in the role must now be open to real doubt and is surely set to be one of the big running political stories of 2012.

History, at least, would suggest that Mr Miliband has little to worry about. The Labour Party does not do assassinations, and invariably allows its leaders the chance to fight at least one election even if they are patently not up to the task.

Against that, both Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot were at least able to demonstrate mid-term opinion poll leads over Margaret Thatcher, even if they went on to crushing defeats.

Mr Miliband has gained an unlikely ally in the Tory columnist Peter Oborne, who this week praised his attempts to move away from what he called the “manipulation and cynicism of the modernising era. “

But while 2012 may well see a growing appetite for a more value-based style of politics, it is far from clear that the public sees Mr Miliband as the man to deliver it.

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Shire Tory said...

I don't see the point of keeping redundant nation states together let alone pan-national groups such as the EU together. Communication and attitudes are such that much smaller gropuings are now viable and the sooner the English divest oursealves of the last communist country in Europe i.e. Scotland, the better.

Nick Illingworth said...

Thought-provoking piece for which many thanks. On an early general election though, is it really in the gift of the Tories to call one now that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act has come into force? states that:

'The Act sets the date of the next general election as 7 May 2015 and on the first Thursday in May in every fifth year thereafter. Early elections can be held only:

• if a motion for an early general election is agreed either by at least two-thirds of the whole House or without division or;

• if a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative government is confirmed by the Commons within 14 days.'


John Problem said...

If you want to see the future of politics then read again Cameron's simply dreadful New Year speech. One appreciates that the Bullingdon types want to appeal to yer average voter but his writer went a little OTT with 'I get that'. And the thrilling concept 'if we lift our eyes to the other side' is just another fancy way of saying what all politicians have forever believed they should promise. Change. This will be how 2012 will be - ghastly posturing and not a lot of action. Alas.