Thursday, 27 December 2012

The State of Play

Since writing a review of the year is too much of a cliché, but an excess of mince pies and brandy has sapped my imagination, I’m going to look at the prospects for the main political parties as we enter 2013. Oddly enough, none of them look on top form, but there are interesting trends to note and things to watch out for. As we shall see, we could be in for a fascinating year.

The Liberal Democrats

Oh dear. David Cameron once said that his favourite political joke was Nick Clegg. Well, Nick’s merry band of sandal wearers is now in such a bad way that pointing and laughing seems almost like bullying. In a recent by-election they actually managed to come eighth, the worst result in their entire history. The idea that a party whose voters generally choose it because it represents ‘none of the above’ could ever retain their support in government has been exposed as ridiculous. I have no sympathy.

That said, they are as cheerful as lemmings as they march towards their certain doom. The party is not tearing itself apart as you might expect. Their conference showed a remarkable degree of unity, and a desire to get on with the serious business of government (bless). The probable result of this is that they will continue to hold up their side of the coalition deal for as long as possible. Facing absolute devastation in the event of a general election, and with a party that wishes to be in a functioning government, Nick Clegg will stay the course. The same could be said of the captain of the Titanic, but there we go.


Superficially, this has been a pretty good year for the Labour Party. A well received conference speech silenced many critics of Ed Miliband’s leadership, who had previously written him off as a looser and a weirdo. The government’s extraordinary budget induced nervous breakdown resulted in Labour building up consistent opinion poll leads, which if translated into votes at a general election would see them in government with a comfortable majority of around 100.

You will note that I said superficially. Ed Miliband has now been ‘leading’ the Labour Party for two years. When he started out he set up a policy review which, starting with a blank sheet of paper, was to devise the policies which the Labour Party was to present to the British public. Two years and £1 million later, and that sheet of paper is still blank. His Shadow Chancellor has argued that the government’s economic policy is all wrong, and been rejected by the voters for his troubles, despite the continuing dire state of the British economy. When the Labour leadership does come up with an idea, it tends to be of the half baked variety, and is quickly forgotten. That well received conference speech brilliantly glossed over the fact that the Labour Party currently has no program for government, no agreed direction (‘one nation’ is a slogan, not a governing philosophy), and not a great deal of time to develop either. They are currently basking in the reflected glory of the government’s entirely predictable mid-term blues. Enjoy it while it lasts boys.

The Conservatives

This is where all the action in British politics is right now. In terms of party politics, the single most important event of the year was when Nick Clegg blocked the boundary review, effectively making it much harder for the Conservatives to win the next election. Harder, but not impossible. I’ve shown you how weak the underlying position of the other parties really is, and David Cameron can see this too. The path is open for a Blair style bid for the centre ground, made by a party that seems competent and yet in tune with the general mood of the British public. Cameron is still the sort of leader who could pull this off. His problem is that his party seem to disagree, both that he should be the leader, and that a bid for the centre ground is the path to success. A large group of Tory backbench rebels has coalesced this year, seemingly vetoing anything they consider unsound, which coincidentally is anything proposed by David Cameron that they don’t consider right wing enough.  

This is about to get a whole lot worse. If one thing unites and excites these rebels more than anything else in the whole world, it is a venomously hostile attitude to Europe. As luck would have it, circumstances have conspired to force Mr Cameron to actually have a European policy, which will probably (unwisely) involve some kind of in/out referendum. We could well be treated to a bitter factional fight between the Tory leadership, who as a rule are in favour of staying in, and their near fanatical activist/backbench base, about a subject that does not excite voters in the slightest. This is how John Major’s government imploded. Cameron has serious political skills, but it is going to take all of them to avoid this happening. Baring the inevitable unforeseen events, this is going to be the biggest political story of 2013, and although the public don’t care yet, the stakes are very high indeed. Should be fun.

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