Sunday, January 04, 2015

Could 2015 be a year of two elections - and three PMs?

My preview of the political year 2015, first published in yesterday's Journal.

It is Thursday, December 31, 2015. The newly-elected Prime Minister sinks contentedly into an armchair at 10 Downing Street, pours himself a drink, and reflects on a tumultuous year in British politics.

Not since 1974 had there been two general elections in a single year. Not since 1852 had there been three Prime Ministers in one year.

Suddenly there is a knock on the door. “The Deputy Prime Minister is here to see you, Mr Johnson,” says the PM’s chief of staff.

“Ask her to wait in the drawing room,” the Prime Minister replies. “I’ll be along in just a moment.”

The Prime Minister had not, of course, expected to end the year in this exalted position. David Cameron and Ed Miliband had led their respective parties into the May general election and he himself had not even been on his own party’s front bench.

But the public had demonstrated its distinct lack of enthusiasm for both Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband by delivering a second successive hung Parliament. The Conservatives were, once again, the biggest single party.

But the parliamentary arithmetic was far more complex than the 2010 contest which had resulted in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition.

While the Lib Dems’ representation dropped from 57 to 29, with Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam seat among the casualties, the Scottish Nationalists had won 22 MPs and Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party ten.

The result was stalemate. The SNP’s new leader at Westminster, Alex Salmond, was as good as his word and refused to make any accommodation with the Conservatives.

Meanwhile the Tory and Lib Dem parliamentary parties refused to make any accommodation with each other, such was their mutual loathing by this stage after five tense years of coalition.

Mr Farage’s ten seats, together with those of the Ulster Unionist parties, were enough to cobble together a bare parliamentary majority – but there were two conditions on which the Ukip leader absolutely refused to budge.

The first was that the referendum on British membership of the EU was to be brought forward to 2016. The second was the immediate resignation of David Cameron as Tory leader.

So it was that, after several days of high politics and low skulduggery, Theresa May was installed as Britain’s second female Prime Minister, in what was in part an attempt to forestall the inevitable leadership challenge by Boris Johnson, newly returned to the Commons.

But the government’s position was so precarious that everyone knew there would soon have to be a second election – with Labour also set to go into the contest under a new leader after Mr Miliband fell on his sword.

A summer of political turbulence followed, with Mrs May disappointing those admirers who had once seen her as Britain’s answer to Angela Merkel by appearing to be at the mercy of both Mr Farage and Mr Johnson.

The Tories seemed bent on self-destruction as party activists, angered at the apparent “coronation” of the new premier, demanded she submit to a leadership contest with the London Mayor.

By the time the election came, in the first week of November, it was clear that the public was fed up with multi-party government.

Mr Farage’s machinations over the summer months had brought accusations that the Ukip tail was well and truly wagging the Tory dog and the public mood appeared to have turned somewhat against the Ukip leader.

His cause was not helped by warnings from several major employers, including Nissan, that they would quit the UK if the 2016 referendum on EU membership resulted in a no-vote.

The election duly delivered the clear verdict which the previous two had failed to do, giving the new government a slim but comfortable working majority of 23.

All of which brings us back to 10 Downing Street and the arrival of the new Prime Minister’s deputy for a New Year’s Eve pow-wow with her boss.

“So, any regrets?” said Stella Creasy, herself newly-elected to the role occupied for the previous eight years by Harriet Harman, and now seen very much as Labour’s rising star.

“Well,” replied Alan Johnson, “I never wanted the job, of course, but when 150 of your MPs simultaneously post messages on Twitter saying you’re the only person who can save the party from another election defeat, what on earth can you do?”

“The best man won in the end, Prime Minister,” said his deputy reassuringly, and wished him a very Happy New Year.

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