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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1 comment:

rob's uncle said...

Re: ‘ . . Mr Cameron would have formed a minority government . . and both would now be gearing up for a fresh election in the spring.’

No: Cameron would have gone to the country for a ‘doctor’s mandate’ in the autumn and would have easily gained the small swing to the Tories needed to give him a working majority. The Lib Dems (my party) would have lost seats and been reduced to principled impotence on the Opposition benches largely ignored by the media and the electors. We would have lost 2 elections in a year with nothing gained except the satisfaction of keeping a promise we should never have made, least of all to an age group who largely can’t be bothered to vote.

Instead, we are in government for 5 years. I prefer unprincipled power to principled impotence and so do most grown-up Lib Dems.