Saturday, April 24, 2010

What if none of them ends up in Number Ten?

Before the current election campaign got under way, there were some pundits who predicted that it could become the first such contest to be decided over the worldwide web.

But apart from one Labour candidate who made a fool of himself by using foul language on Twitter – the twit in question was swiftly forced to quit – talk of an ‘internet election’ has proved wide of the mark.

Instead, it has been the relatively old-fashioned medium of television which has led the way, with the debates between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg proving to be the pivotal events in the campaign.

Indeed, they have assumed such a degree of significance that much of what has happened in between them has seemed a bit like waiting for the next course to arrive in a restaurant.

After the first debate, I wrote that it was beginning to look as though the will of the public in this election may be to deny both of the two main parties an outright majority.

At the time, it was a somewhat tentative conclusion, but the “Cleggmania” that erupted over subsequent days suggested it wasn’t far off the mark.

If proof was needed that it is the Lib Dem leader who is setting the agenda in this campaign, one need only look at how the second debate on Thursday contrasted with the first.

Whereas in the first one the prevailing attitude of the other two leaders was “I agree with Nick,” in the second one they were finding as much to disagree with him about as possible.

Another thing I wrote last Saturday was that the Lib Dems can expect an onslaught from the 'big two' over the next few days such as they have never seen.

In truth Labour has been rather muted in its criticisms, but the attacks on Mr Clegg in Thursday morning’s Tory-supporting newspapers will have done Mr Cameron’s party little good in my view.

The public has come to see that kind of journalism for what it is – not journalism, in fact, but merely an extension of the yah-boo politics they have come to loathe.

If the Cameron camp was hoping it would burst the Clegg bubble, it is already clear that it has signally failed to do so.

That said, both Mr Cameron and Mr Brown can certainly take heart from this week’s debate, which saw all three contenders much more evenly-matched than the previous one.

Indeed, Mr Brown’s ratings improved so markedly that he might even entertain hopes of coming out on top in the final, surely decisive confrontation this coming Thursday.

The Prime Minister is nothing if not resilient, and his “like me or not” passage in which he tackled his own lack of personal charisma head-on will have gained him a certain amount of respect.

There remains, though, a strong feeling in the electorate that, after 13 years and a record that can best be described as mixed, this government has finally run its course.

For that reason, we can expect to hear Mr Cameron continuing to hammer away at his core message over the next week that only a vote for him can spare us another five years of Mr Brown.

It is not, as it happens, strictly true. The price of a Lib-Lab pact could well be the Prime Minister’s head on a platter, in which case expect to see South Shields MP David Miliband summoned to the Palace.

Of all the possible denouements to this extraordinary campaign, that would surely be the most bizarre – that none of the three contenders who have slogged it out over the airwaves actually ends up in Number Ten.

The fact that such scenarios are even being discussed is a measure of just how unpredictable this whole election has become.

free web site hit counter

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Tories win battle of ideas - but Clegg wins battle of personalities

Whether you take the view that politics is essentially about the big issues facing the country, or whether you see it as merely a clash of egos, there has been plenty to chew on this week as the election battle continued to shape up.

The 'policies v personalities' dichotomy was perhaps most elegantly summed-up by Denis Healey, writing about his former colleague Roy Jenkins in his autobiography 'The Time of My Life.'

"He saw politics very much like Trollope, as the interplay of personalities seeking preferment, rather than, like me, as a conflict of principles and programmes about social and economic change," he wrote.

So while Healey doubtless saw the publication of the parties' manifestos as the key event of the last seven days, Jenkins would have been more likely to incline towards Thursday's TV debate between the three main party leaders.

First off, then, the manifestos. In a nutshell, Labour's was the dullest, the Lib Dems' the longest and most detailed, and the Tories' by far the cleverest.

That is not to say the Tories had all the best ideas. Some of them - such as allowing local people to sack failing police chiefs and headteachers - may well cause more problems than they solve.

But the point is, at least are they are ideas, and at least they are fresh.

By going big on the 'new localism,' Tory leader David Cameron may well succeed in capturing the 'anti politics' mood that has gripped the country ever since the MPs expenses debacle of last summer.

The absence of such an overarching vision or ‘big idea’ in the Labour document, by contrast, seemed to underline the view that the party needs a spell in opposition to renew itself.

That impression was scarcely dispelled by the TV debates, in which a greying, seemingly exhausted Prime Minister was forced to square up to two younger, more vigorous and more charismatic rivals.

Mr Brown could have tried to use his greater experience to advantage, but perhaps constrained by the format, he seemed oddly reluctant to attack his opponents.

For instance, instead of trying to engage intellectually with Mr Cameron's claims that Labour’s National Insurance rise is about wasting money rather than cutting the deficit, he should have told him to stop talking rubbish.

The opinion polls have already declared Nick Clegg the big winner of the debate, and I have to say that confirmed my own impression

He made a slight fool of himself by refusing to say whether he agreed with Mr Brown's plans for a referendum on the voting system when we all know he would love nothing more, but that aside, it was an assured performance from the Lib Dem leader.

His best moment came when he pointed out that both parties had blocked his plans to allow constituents to recall their MPs in the event of serious wrongdoing.

This idea has since appeared in one form or another in all three parties' manifestos - a perfect illustration of how the old, adversarial politics frustrates real progress.

So will Mr Clegg's 'victory' change the dynamics of the contest?

Well, one thing is certain. The Lib Dems can expect an onslaught from the 'big two' over the next few days such as they have never seen.

But though it is still early days, it is beginning to look as though the will of the public in this election may be to deny both of the two main parties an outright majority.

If so, it is just possible that this could be the election that finally changes the face of British politics for ever.

free web site hit counter

Friday, April 16, 2010

Who has the best manifesto for the media?

Check back here tomorrow morning for my verdict on the parties manifestos and yesterday's TV leaders' debate - but in the meantime here's a piece I wrote for HTFP today comparing what the main parties are saying on the key issues affecting the media industry.

free web site hit counter

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Not a good start for Labour

And so at last they're off, as the race finally gets under way in earnest in what promises to be the most pivotal UK general election since 1997 and the closest since 1992.

Not that that is saying much. Labour's victories in 2001 and 2005 were moreorless pre-ordained from the start, the only real interest being in whether the Tories would do well enough to save first William Hague's, then Michael Howard's leadership.

It's a different story this time round. This election is David Cameron's to lose, and if he does lose it, he will swiftly go the way of those two predecessors.

Labour, by contrast, is having to come from so far behind that, already, it is giving the impression that a hung Parliament and a deal with the Lib Dems is the best it can hope for.

The leaders' photocalls on Tuesday in the wake of Gordon Brown's visit to the Palace were nothing if not revealing, in terms of the subliminal messages each of the parties were trying to get across.

There was the Prime Minister outside Number Ten, flanked by his entire Cabinet as if to say: "We know you don't like Gordon, but we're a team, not a solo act."

Then there was Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, flanked by Vince Cable in acknowledgement of the fact that the 66-year-old Treasury spokesman is easily the most compelling reason to vote for the party on 6 May.

And most tellingly of all, Mr Cameron, surrounded not by a frontbench team which is largely distrusted by the public, but by a group of fresh-faced candidates - although it was not long before his own star turn, wife Sam, joined him on the campaign trail.

So what of the story so far? Well, it has not been an especially good start to the campaign for Labour.

First off, the government was forced to shelve a series of measures it had previously championed, including the proposed regional ITV news pilot in this region which the Tories have perplexingly vowed to scrap if they win.

Most ironic was the scrapping of the Bill to provide for a referendum on the voting system - on the very day Labour sought to highlight its constitutional reform credentials in an obvious play for Lib Dem support.

Mr Clegg was rightly contemptuous of this. After all, if Labour had acted rather sooner on its 1997 promise on electoral reform, the wretched Bill would hardly have run out of time.

Equally clumsy and cynical was yesterday's foray by Transport Secretary Lord Adonis, advising Lib Dem voters in marginal seats to vote tactically for Labour.

The fact that Labour is already reduced to begging for Lib Dem votes this early on in the campaign speaks volumes for the government's lack of confidence in its own message.

But Labour's biggest difficulties this week came with the concerted assault by business leaders over its planned 1p rise in National Insurance.

Mr Brown’s response – that some of Britain’s shrewdest business minds had allowed themselves to be “deceived” by the Tories, was hardly an exercise in how to win friends and influence people.

This week has been but an hors d'oeuvre. The main course of this election campaign will be the three TV debates between the three leaders which are due to begin next week.

Mr Brown only agreed to take part in the debates because he is the underdog, and they are clearly crucial to his hopes of a comeback.

The Prime Minister has to do what Tony Blair predicted he would do long ago - and land a "big clunking fist" on his Tory opponent.

If he can, he is back in the game. If not, short of a Tory scandal or implosion, it is hard to see where else a Labour revival is going to come from.

free web site hit counter

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Will Vince Cable be the next Chancellor?

IN an election where the state of the economy is likely to be more central than ever to the outcome, it is not surprising that the identity of the next Chancellor is almost as burning an issue as that of the next Prime Minister.

From being seen at one time as a weak link in Labour’s armoury – not least by Gordon Brown himself who wanted to replace him with Ed Balls – Alastair Darling has unexpectedly emerged as one of the government’s few genuine assets.

Okay, so his third Budget ten days ago contained no new ideas and few positive reasons to vote Labour on May 6 save that of ‘better the devil you know.’

But that was not the point. Somehow, Mr Darling seems to have established himself in the public’s mind as that rare thing in 21st Century Britain – a politician who tells it like it is.

So the TV confrontation this week between Mr Darling and his opposition shadows Vince Cable and George Osborne was one of the more eagerly awaited events of the seemingly interminable pre-election countdown.

It was given added spice by the fact that Mr Osborne’s political trajectory has been almost the diametric opposite of Mr Darling’s over the past two and a half years.

Back in the autumn of 2007, he was the Tory hero whose bold promise to raise inheritance tax thresholds was seen as largely responsible for putting the frighteners on Mr Brown’s election plans.

But just as that IT pledge has become something of a millstone around the Tories’ necks in these more straitened times, so Mr Osborne has become increasingly perceived as their ‘weakest link.’

It was very clear from the Tory Shadow Chancellor’s performance in Monday night’s debate that he had been reading the findings of Labour’s focus groups which called him “shrill, immature and lightweight.”

But in his efforts to appear statesmanlike, he rather over-compensated, leading one pundit to describe he and Mr Darling as “the bland leading the bland.”

Instead, it was Mr Cable who earned the lion’s share of the audience applause on the night, for instance over his refusal to indulge in impossible promises on NHS spending.

So which one of them, if any, will be Chancellor? It’s not necessarily as straightforward a question as it may seem.

Sure, if Labour wins outright, Mr Darling will stay on. Mr Brown has already been forced to say as much, putting his old ally Mr Balls’ ambitions on hold once more.

But in the event of a Tory victory, or a hung Parliament, the situation becomes much less clear cut.

There have long been rumours in Tory circles that Mr Osborne won’t go to 11 Downing Street even if they win outright.

The talk is that David Cameron could give the job of sorting out the economic mess either to old-hand Ken Clarke, or to right-wing axe-man Philip Hammond.

Most intriguing is the fate of Mr Cable. Clearly he will not be Chancellor in a Lib Dem government – but could he hold the role in a Labour or Tory-led coalition?

The short answer to that is yes. For all Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s refusal to play the ‘kingmaker,’ securing the Treasury for Mr Cable is likely to be central to any post-election deal in a hung Parliament.

The opinion polls continue to point to this as the likeliest election outcome, with the Tory lead still insufficient to give them an outright majority.

The race for Number 10 clearly lies between Mr Cameron and Mr Brown. But in the race for Number 11, it is the Liberal Democrat contender who is in pole position.

free web site hit counter