Saturday, May 25, 2013

Why the Coalition won't last the course

IF a week is a long time in politics, then two weeks is twice as long – and the fortnight since this column last appeared seems to have been a particularly lengthy one for Prime Minister David Cameron.

A collective madness has descended upon his party, with rows about Europe and gay marriage punctuated by Cabinet ministers positioning themselves for what many now see as the inevitable post-Cameron succession battle.

Much of this is what Alastair Campbell used to call ‘froth.’ Whatever Michael Gove and Philip Hammond might dream about in bed at night, Mr Cameron is not going to be overthrown as Tory leader before the next election, and if he wins it, this bout of internal rancour will be long forgotten.

And if he loses, or fails again to win an outright majority, he’ll be overthrown anyway – but that’s par for the course for Tory leaders who fail to win elections and nothing that has happened over the past two weeks has altered that underlying reality.

What it may have done, however, is made it rather less likely that he will win in 2015.

Mr Cameron’s once-stated intention to stop his party “banging on about Europe” now seems laughable, while his attempts to detoxify the Tory brand by embracing liberal causes such as same-sex marriage seem only to have alienated his core supporters.

As I wrote in the context of the local election results, the only silver lining for the Prime Minister is that the country still seems less than overwhelmed by the idea of Ed Miliband as his successor.

So long as that remains the case, Mr Cameron may well be able to squeeze the UKIP vote by presenting the 2015 contest as a presidential battle between himself and a man who few voters of a right-wing disposition want to see in 10 Downing Street.

But for me, the most interesting political story of the past fortnight concerned not the fate of Mr Cameron, but the future of the Coalition government which he leads.

It appeared on the front page of The Times a week ago yesterday, and revealed that the Tories are now planning how they would govern without the Liberal Democrats for the last six to ten months of the Parliament.

“We need to have an idea of what we are going to do if at different points it does break up,” a source said.

The paper also quoted a senior Lib Dem as saying that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg needed to act to prevent them “drifting into a four party situation with us as the fourth party.”

For me, this is a story which has been crying out to be written ever since the Coalition was first formed.

As regular readers of this column will know, I have argued from the outset that the political dynamics are such that it will be impossible for the Coalition to survive a full five-year parliamentary term.

It has long been clear that, in order to avoid humiliation in 2015, the Lib Dems will need to start differentiating themselves from the Conservatives long before polling day.

However it is now becoming increasingly clear that if they are to win back some of their lost core supporters from the arms of UKIP, the Tories will also need to start differentiating themselves from the Liberal Democrats.

Here, for what it’s worth, is how I see it panning out. Next June’s European elections turn into a disaster for both governing parties, with Labour and UKIP forcing them into third and fourth place in the popular vote.

Both Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg will then have to face their party conferences in September 2014 with activists demanding how they are going to recover in time for an election that will then be less than eight months away.

If they try to stay together for the sake of the kids, it will almost certainly put Ed Miliband in Number Ten, in that the Lib Dems will find it impossible to woo back their disenchanted supporters from Labour while the Tories will struggle to win back theirs from UKIP.

The alternative – an amicable divorce with Mr Cameron leading a minority government for the final few months of the parliament - really is the only conceivable outcome.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

A plague on all their houses

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, a fringe party sent shockwaves through the political establishment after securing 15pc of the popular vote in the 1989 elections to the European Parliament.

Alas for the Green Party, it could not sustain the momentum of its unexpected success, and by the time of the following general election in 1992, it has sunk back into relative political obscurity.

So the big question in the wake of this week’s local elections is whether the UK Independence Party can succeed in 2013 where the Greens failed all those years ago, and achieve a lasting and significant political breakthrough.

Certainly the signs currently seem positive for Nigel Farage and his crew, who weathered a determined smear campaign by the big parties to emerge as the big winners of Thursday’s poll.

In the North-East, UKIP repeated its surprise second place at the Middlesbrough by-election last November by coming second to Labour in the South Shields contest to choose a successor to David Miliband.

While nobody expected the Conservatives to win here - it has been Labour or Liberal since the Great Reform Act of 1832 – the result was little short of a humiliation for the Coalition parties.

Not only were the Conservatives beaten into third place by Farage and Co, the Liberal Democrats were beaten into seventh place by a ragtag and bobtail collection of independents and fringe parties, including the BNP.

It suggests that, unless they can somehow extricate themselves from the Coalition in time to re-establish themselves as an independent force, the Lib Dems are facing electoral wipeout in the region come 2015.

But while South Shields provided an interesting snapshot of the current state of opinion in the North-East,  UKIP’s strong performance there was but a foretaste of what was to come across the rest of the country.

When last I counted, the party had gained 139 councillors across England compared to a loss of 106 for the Lib Dems and 320 for the Tories.

The political impact was immediate, with a Tory Party that had earlier in the week attempted to brand UKIP as a bunch of racist clowns being forced to eat a very large slice of humble pie.

“It’s no good insulting a political party that people have chosen to vote for,” said Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday, effectively withdrawing his previous claim that UKIP members were “fruitcakes.”

The real headache for Mr Cameron’s Tories is that, with the general election now only two years away, they are no nearer knowing how to deal with the threat of the anti-EU party.

Announcing a referendum on UK membership to be held in the next Parliament was supposed to lance the boil – but Thursday’s results show it has had no effect whatever in curbing support for UKIP.

The situation is likely to get worse for Mr Cameron before it gets better.  Mr Farage entertains legitimate hopes of first place in the popular share of the vote in next year’s Euro-elections, and a strong performance then will give his party even greater momentum going into 2015.

It is already looking very likely that, if TV debates are to be a part of the next general election campaign, the UKIP leader will have to be given a slot.

But if Thursday’s results were bad for the government, they were not a bed or roses for Labour either.

As ever, the party performed strongly in the North-East, holding South Shields and regaining the North Tyneside mayoralty, as well as winning 15 council seats to become the biggest single party in Northumberland and tightening its grip on County Durham.

But nationally, the party’s failure to win outright control of Lancashire and Staffordshire County Councils, or to do better in the South, leave a huge question mark over its ability to win in the key battlegrounds, as well as its claims to be  the ‘One Nation’ party.

On what was a bad night for Mr Cameron, the only saving grace is that it was a not much better one for Ed Miliband.