Saturday, December 29, 2012

Taxi for Balls? My political predictions for 2013

Andy Murray will win Wimbledon, Roberto Mancini will be sacked as manager of Manchester City, David and Victoria Beckham will return to the UK, and the X-Factor will finally be canned after ten not always glorious years.

Those were just some of the predictions for 2013 made by members of the public in a recent poll on what we expect to see happening in the year ahead.

But so much for the sport and showbiz; what of the politics?  Well, in last week’s column looking back at 2012 I suggested that the next 12 months may well see the Con-Lib Coalition that has governed the country since May 2010 finally splitting asunder.

It seems I am not alone in this view:  the prospect of Messrs Cameron and Clegg going their separate ways was also mentioned in the aforesaid poll, along with a rise in interest rates, a strike by NHS workers and the prosecution of a major bank for fraud.

So what’s causing the present bout of Coalition-busting speculation?  Well, anyone who heard Nick Clegg’s speech at the Royal Commonwealth Society shortly before Christmas will not be surprised that talk of divorce is in the air.

The speech was less about Lib Dem achievements in government as about what Mr Clegg’s party had prevented the Tories from doing.

It was all a far cry from the government’s early days when the Lib Dem leader had been determined that his party should jointly ‘own’ all of the Coalition’s policies - not just those which it had specifically advocated.

But that strategy was only destined to work so long as the Coalition was popular.   Once it started to be unpopular – as has happened in 2012 – it was inevitable that Mr Clegg would begin to embark on a strategy of differentiation.

It has been my view from the outset that the Lib Dems would somehow have to find a way of getting out of the Coalition alive in order to stand any chance of maintaining a significant parliamentary presence at the next election, and I expect this process to be accelerated in the coming year.

The internal politics of the two parties will play a big part.   If Mr Clegg does not, by the time of his party’s annual conference, set out some kind of exit strategy, he will almost certainly face a leadership challenge before the election.

At the same time, those Tory backbench voices which loathe the Lib Dems and all their works will grow louder, as they seek to press David Cameron into the more orthodox Conservative position that they believe – mistakenly in my view – will secure them an outright majority next time round.

I would expect the upshot to be that the Lib Dems will leave the government within the next 12-15 months, with the Tories moving to a “confidence and supply” arrangement for the remainder of the five-year Parliament.

But while the Coalition may struggle to maintain the semblance of unity, Labour leader Ed Miliband will also struggle to present himself as the Prime Minister-in-waiting that Mr Cameron and Tony Blair so obviously were in their opposition days.

Mr Miliband has had his successes, but the full rashness of Labour’s decision to choose him over his brother David will become clear over the next 12 months.

Overtures will be made to the South Shields MP to return the frontline as Shadow Chancellor in place of Ed Balls, whose closeness to Gordon Brown and the errors of the New Labour years will ultimately prove a fatal barrier to the party’s attempts to regain economic credibility.

But a likelier outcome is a comeback for the respected former Chancellor, Alistair Darling, who has successfully managed to distance himself from Mr Brown’s mistakes.

Mr Balls may not be the only major economic player to be shown the door in 2013.  If the economy continues to stagnate, Mr Cameron may also be forced to find a new role for George Osborne as the election draws nearer.

And with Mr Osborne out of the Tory succession picture, attempts will be made to build up Education Secretary Michael Gove as the alternative contender from within the Cabinet to counter the continuing threat of Boris Johnson.

Unlike poor old Mr Mancini, I don’t expect we will see any of the three main party leaders actually losing their jobs in 2013.

What we will see, though, is each of them having to take fairly drastic action in order to save them.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Budget debacle that left Coalition floundering

Here's my annual political review of the year, published in this morning's Newcastle Journal.

Until the early months of this year, the Con-Lib coalition that has governed Britain since May 2010 had by and large done so with a fair wind behind it from the public.

Without ever reaching the heights of popularity enjoyed by New Labour as its zenith, David Cameron’s government appeared, at the very least, to have earned the benefit of the doubt, particularly when it came to the economy.

All that changed on Wednesday 21 March – the day Chancellor George Osborne delivered his third Budget.

To say it was the pivotal moment of the political year would be something of an understatement. In terms of its impact on public opinion, it may well prove to be the pivotal moment of the entire five-year Parliament.

In the space of a 59-minute speech, the Chancellor announced a package of measures which seemed almost deliberately designed to alienate as many sections of the electorate as he could find.

He slapped VAT on hot food and caravans, froze the age-related tax allowance for pensioners, removed a tax break on charitable giving that would have hit hundreds of good causes, and topped it off with a cut in the higher rate of tax worth £42,295 to anyone earning £1m a year.

It was the ‘pasty tax’ rather than the top rate cut which proved the most politically toxic, playing as it did into the ‘Tory toffs’ narrative which had increasingly started to dog Messrs Cameron and Osborne.

In the end, the plan was ditched following a campaign by this newspaper among others – one of a series of budget U-turns which left the Chancellor’s credibility seriously damaged.

From there on in, even though the festivities around the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London 2012 Olympics provided useful temporary distractions, the government struggled to get back on the front foot.

And the slide in its opinion poll ratings was accompanied by increasing tensions within the Coalition itself – notably over Europe, welfare cuts, gay marriage and, most of all, Lords reform.

With his dream of a new electoral system shattered in the May 2011 referendum, deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was pinning his hopes of achieving lasting political reform on securing an elected second chamber - but the Tory backbenchers were having none of it.

The Lib Dems retaliated by scuppering the Tories’ plans for a review of Parliamentary boundaries that would probably have gained them 20-30 seats at the next election

Frustrated in his attempts to regain the political initiative, Mr Cameron resorted to the time-honoured tactic of a reshuffle, but some of his new appointments soon began to unravel.

He shunted Justine Greening out of the job of transport secretary on account of her opposition to a third runway at Heathrow only to see London Mayor and would-be leadership rival Boris Johnson rally to her cause.

His appointment of Andrew Mitchell as chief whip also swiftly backfired when he was involved in an altercation with police officers at the entrance to 10 Downing Street.

However in what has surely been the most interminable and convoluted political story of the year, Mr Mitchell now looks likely to have the last laugh, after it emerged that a police officer may have fabricated evidence.

In the North-East, the regional political agenda continued to be dominated by the fallout from the government’s spending cuts.

Newcastle city council responded to the spending squeeze by taking the axe to the arts budget – reminding those of us with long memories of the antics of so-called ‘loony left’ councils in the 1980s.

Yet at the same time, the year saw something of a rebirth of regional policy, driven by Lord Heseltine’s ‘No Stone Unturned’ report which was explicitly endorsed by Mr Osborne in his autumn statement.

The mini budget also saw the Chancellor forced to back down on plans to introduce regional pay rates following a fierce campaign by the unions.

The year ended with increasing speculation that the Coalition may not, after all, go the distance to the planned next election date of May 2015.

With the government seemingly stuck in a trough of unpopularity, the need for the Liberal Democrats to assert their separate identity from the Tories is growing.

Mr Clegg’s decision to make a separate Commons statement from the front bench on last month’s Leveson report into press regulation was unprecedented, but may well prove to be the start of a trend.

If 2012 was the year the Coalition lost the public’s goodwill, 2013 may prove to be the one that sees it splitting asunder.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

At last: The beginnings of a regional economic policy

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IN terms of the political big picture, Chancellor George Osborne’s autumn statement on Wednesday this week may well come to be seen as a pivotal moment in the next general election battle.

Whether the so-called mini budget will win or lose that contest for his party, however, is currently a difficult one to call.

On the one hand, the Chancellor was, against the expectations of most pundits and economists, able to reveal that the deficit is continuing to fall, and that government borrowing would therefore not need to increase after all.

On the other, he was forced to admit that the years of austerity would continue at least until 2018, that growth would continue to be sluggish, and that his original target of reducing debt as a proportion of GDP by 2015 would be delayed by at least a year.

Too much has been made of the fact that Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, thrown by the unexpected news on borrowing, made an uncharacteristic hash of his set-piece reply to Mr Osborne’s Commons statement.

The truth is that only political anoraks get worked up about that sort of thing.  What will linger more in the public’s mind is the fact that Chancellor’s harsh medicine is still no nearer to bringing about a lasting economic recovery.

Of potentially much greater significance than Mr Balls’ incoherent ramblings is the risk that Mr Osborne’s failure to meet the debt reduction target will mean Britain losing its AAA credit rating.

Much of what Mr Osborne has done over the past two and a half years has been designed to stave off this very threat, and if the rating is indeed downgraded, it will surely be time for David Cameron to find a new Chancellor.

What, though, does it all mean for the North-East?  Well – and how many times have I had to write this line over the past 15 years? – there will be no dualling of the A1 north of Newcastle for starters.

Other proposals which failed to win the Chancellor’s stamp of approval included a £25m upgrade for the Tyne and Wear Metro, and a package of support for the region’s offshore wind industry.

Furthermore the proposed welfare cutbacks, with benefit rises for the next three years capped at a below-inflation 1pc, will also disproportionately hit those regions with higher rates of unemployment such as this one.

But amid all this, there are continuing signs that this government – more so than its recent predecessors – is starting to take the idea of regional policy seriously.

The most obvious indication of this came a few weeks when Lord Heseltine, the arch-interventionist of Tory politics in an era where the free marketeers held sway, published his ‘No Stone Unturned’ report.

The Chancellor has explicitly backed its call for a single funding pot covering housing, skills, transport and job creation as well new powers and funding for local enterprise partnerships.

Significantly, the government is to give each LEP the chance to nominate a single major infrastructure project which will then be eligible for a new concessionary public works loan rate, up to a value of £1.5bn.

In addition Whitehall will provide a further £350m towards the Regional Growth Fund, to provide support for jobs and growth across the English regions until 2015.

While the impact of those changes remains to be seen, a more immediate boost to the region came with the announcement that  - 54 years on from the opening of the Preston by-pass - Newcastle will finally join the motorway network, with all stretches of the A1 south of the city to be upgraded to motorway standard.

And the spectre of regional pay, which could have led to teachers and nurses in the North being paid less than their Southern counterparts, has also receded in what was a notable victory for both the unions and the Lib Dems.

It was surely coincidence that, on the day the Tories were pushed into fourth place by UKIP in the Middlesbrough by-election last week, Mr Osborne appointed a new adviser in Neil O’Brien who has previously warned that the party risks ‘pariah status’ in the North.

If the autumn statement is anything to go by, maybe he is already making his voice heard.