Saturday, December 18, 2010

Review of the Political Year 2010

When future historians come to assess the political events of 2010, two big counterfactual questions are likely to loom large in their minds.

They are: what if Labour had ditched Gordon Brown before the General Election, and what if the Liberal Democrats had refused to go into coalition with David Cameron's Conservatives?

The second question is probably the easier one to answer. Mr Cameron would have formed a minority government, David and not Ed Miliband would have become Labour leader, and both would now be gearing up for a fresh election in the spring.

But the more tantalising question is whether Mr Cameron might never have become Prime Minister at all had Labour gone into the election under a more popular leader.

The political year 2010 began with Mr Brown's survival once again hanging in the balance.

Former Labour ministers Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt attempted to get MPs to demand a leadership contest, but rightly or wrongly, the consensus in the party was that by then it was too late to change horses.

As it was, the election turned into a slow-motion car crash for Labour, dominated by televised debates in which Mr Brown was predictably outshone by his two younger, more charismatic opponents.

Then, in the final week of the campaign, came 'Duffygate' - the kind of incident which could have happened to any of them, but which seemed somehow fated to happen to the luckless Mr Brown.

In terms of issues, the campaign centred mainly on the question of how to deal with the country's biggest budget deficit since the 1930s.

Here Labour was on an equally sticky wicket, with voters clearly concluding that the party was 'in denial' about the extent of the problem and crediting the Tories for being at least partially honest about the scale of the forthcoming cuts.

For all that, though, the public remained largely unconvinced by Mr Cameron and his team, and the eventual result saw the Tories falling some 20 seats short of outright victory.

Days of frantic bargaining followed, but with the parliamentary maths in favour of a Lib-Lab deal failing to stack up, it was always likely that a Lib-Con coalition would be the outcome.

Faced with the task of finding a successor to Mr Brown, Labour managed to saddle itself with the lesser-known of the Miliband brothers, courtesy of a crazy electoral system which gave the unions the decisive say.

For David Miliband, brother Ed's leadership election victory came as a bitter blow and the South Shields MP stood down from his party's frontbench.

Then, in one of his first acts as leader, Ed sacked former Minister for the North-East Nick Brown from his Shadow Cabinet team, leaving the region somewhat leaderless in Whitehall.

Indeed, with the new coalition busily taking the axe to every regional institution in sight, the North-East seemed in danger of losing its political voice altogether.

Initial excitement about the coalition soon faded. The 'new politics' spoken of by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg in the TV debates soon regressed into the old politics of broken election promises.

Chancellor George Osborne had expected that the £80bn programme of cuts unveiled in his October comprehensive spending review would swiftly make him the most unpopular man in Britain.

Instead, it was Mr Clegg who became the government's fall-guy, completing his journey from hero to zero by backing the rise in tuition fees against which he had so vehemently campaigned in April and May.

The Lib Dems' decision to trade principle for power has clearly come at a huge political cost. The key question for 2011 is whether the coalition as a whole can survive it.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Anarchy in the UK? This is not the country Cameron wants to lead

It is a moot point whether Thursday's protests over the government's decision to raise universities tuition fees to £9,000 amounted to the worst civil disturbances since the poll tax riots of 1990.

One should not forget that the fuel protests of autumn 2000 came close to bringing the country to a standstill - but they were by and large peaceful.

Measured purely in terms of street violence, this week's demonstrations almost certainly constituted the biggest outpouring of public anger seen since the days of Margaret Thatcher.

Should that be a warning sign to David Cameron and his coalition? Undoubtedly so.

The bare facts of the matter are that the government won the Commons vote on lifting the cap on fees by a majority of 21, down from its usual majority of 83.

While 28 Liberal Democrat MPs voted in support of the move, 21 defied the party leadership, including former leaders Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell and a possible future leader, Tim Farron.

Meanwhile six Tory MPs also voted against the measure, including the former leadership contender David Davis who, like Mr Farron, appears to be positioning himself for the coalition's eventual collapse.

But while the government won the vote, the question is whether in doing so it lost the argument, as well control of the streets.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the demonstrators have over-reached themselves, and that the ugliness of some of Thursday's scenes will turn the wider public against the students' cause.

In the short-term, it will have focused attention less on the fees issue than the question of whether security arrangements for the demo were even half way adequate.

But the debate over tuition fees is far from over. The House of Lords will certainly have a say on the matter, and there will have to be further legislation over the level and speed at which the fees are paid back.

That in turn is bound to lead to further rebellions which, if successful, could ultimately force the government to unpick the entire scheme.

So where does it leave the coalition? Well, firstly, what about the Lib Dems.

Their hope was that by getting the fees vote out of the way early on, it would enable them to move the political agenda onto other areas in which they are on firmer ground, such as political reform.

I wonder, however, whether memories will fade that easily, and whether we have not witnessed a seminal moment in terms of public perceptions of the third party.

It could well be that this will go down as the point at which the public stopped seeing the Lib Dems as a party of principle and started to see them as their opponents have always seem them – a bunch of opportunists who would break any promise for a taste of power.

Secondly, where do this week's events leave Mr Cameron? Despite his own protestations last week that he would "rather be a child of Thatcher than a son of Brown," he is not the Iron Lady.

His style is consensual rather than confrontational. Unlike his illustrious predecessor, he has no wish to see his premiership consumed by battles against the 'enemy within.'

Within weeks of those poll tax riots in the autumn of 1990, the Prime Minister had gone, albeit over a combination of that and other issues.

That is not going to happen to Mr Cameron just yet. But in his desire to lead a broadly united country, he won't want to see too many more weeks like this one.

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Saturday, December 04, 2010

Labour don't do assassinations, but if they did....

When Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader on the opening day of the party's conference in Manchester in September, a leading Tory blogger delivered a withering verdict on the result.

"They’ve missed out Hague and gone straight to IDS," said Paul Staines, author of the Guido Fawkes blog which, while not exactly impartial in its coverage of the political scene, is not without influence at Westminster.

Staines was, so far as I am aware, the first political pundit to make the comparison between 'Red Ed' and the failed Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, but he certainly hasn't proved to be the last.

"It may be too early to start talking about Ed Miliband not making it to the next election as Labour leader, but many more performances at PMQs as poor as he put on today and it won’t be long before he’s in IDS territory," said another this week.

Wednesday's Prime Minister's questions should have been a breeze for Mr Miliband with the continuing three-way split in the Liberal Democrats over whether to vote for tuition fees, vote against them or abstain.

On top of that, he had the leaked critique by Bank of England governor Mervyn King describing Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne as "out of their depth."

Yet Mr Miliband chose instead to base his attack on another leaked document in which William Hague had described himself, Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne as 'Thatcher's children.'

"I would rather be a child of Thatcher than a son of Brown," the Prime Minister responded, ramming home the open goal to hoots of laughter from the government benches.

For Mr Miliband to attack the coalition for its Thatcherite tendencies was politically inept on so many levels it is hard to know where to start.

To begin with, Mrs Thatcher would not even have contemplated some of the things the coalition is doing, particularly in the area of welfare, so the comparison breaks down at the first hurdle.

But the real problem with referencing Margaret Thatcher in contemporary political debate is the wildly differing reactions she still elicits, even 20 years on from her downfall.

Labour's core voters may still regard her as the devil incarnate - but to many of the swing voters the party needs to win back, she was, and remains, a heroine.

Inevitably, the mounting discontent over Ed's slow start has led to continuing speculation that South Shields MP David Miliband might yet get a second shot at the leadership.

For my part, I can't see it. David may have deserved to get the job in September, but his brother's performance since then is in danger of trashing the entire Miliband brand.

It is simply inconceivable to my mind that, charged with finding another new leader at this stage, the party would replace a failed Miliband with….another Miliband.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Yvette Cooper, who should have stood for the job this time round, is surely in pole position to take over should the opportunity arise.

What will probably save Ed Miliband is that Labour doesn't really do leadership assassinations. They knew Michael Foot was going to lose badly in 1983, yet passed up the chance to put Denis Healey into the job instead.

They probably knew Gordon Brown was going to lose in 2010, but again, they failed to move decisively against him.

The big difference, though, between those two leaders and the current one is that while they, at least to begin with, could claim the support of their own MPs, Mr Miliband was foisted on his by the wider party.

And, of course, there was another recent party leader who found himself in exactly that position. His initials were IDS.

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