However tempting it may be to do so, it is foolish to make predictions about the electoral prospects for political parties two years from now. Barring some dramatic breakdown that could precipitate it sooner than either of the coalition partners wishes, there will be no election until 2015. Were there to be an election now, it is likely that Labour, which enjoys a substantial lead in the polls, would win a parliamentary majority. Both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats recognize this. Discontent is widespread in both parties and amongst coalition MPs disgruntlement has become a permanent state. The Tories blame the Lib Dems for their woes; the Lib Dems blame their Tory partners for seriously, possibly irreparably, damaging their prospects of survival at the next election. The chaotic state of the coalition should be good news for all who wish to see it kicked out by the electorate sooner rather than later. Grounds for optimism that this may well be a single-parliament government are not difficult to find.
The first and most obvious of these lies in the economy. It is very difficult to see how it is likely to improve by 2015. According to the confident promises of George Osborne in 2010, there should by this time have been a return to healthy growth. Instead the economy has been flat-lining for two years and Britain is entering an unprecedented triple-dip recession. On the government’s own terms, austerity isn’t working. However, as they have no ‘plan B’ they press ahead with it like a bull in a china shop. Against all sober advice (including from those like the IMF who are broadly sympathetic to the government) to change course, their ears remain blocked and their eyes closed. Every week brings more bad news about the damage inflicted on the innocent victims and on the welfare structures that have been in place for more than sixty years. Outsourcing to profit-driven private health providers has put the future of the National Health Service at serious risk. Another two-and-a-half years of cutting and burning is unlikely to improve the electoral prospects of the perpetrators. Their own propaganda, directed to ‘hard-working families’ and eagerly disseminated by the Tory tabloids, to the effect that cuts to benefits are only aimed at ‘indolent scroungers’, has backfired as large numbers of low-wage hard-working families and disabled people on benefits find their meager incomes slashed, supposedly to help the government ‘cut the deficit.’
Then there is the seemingly endless disgraceful saga of the banks. The latest exposure will have to suffice for the many more that have now been exposed for breathtaking levels of chicanery, greed and sheer criminality. Royal bank of Scotland (RBS) has been fined £390m by the regulators for rigging the Libor rate. Despite the fact that the bank was bailed out by the taxpayer in 2008 and brought largely (80%) under state control in order to prevent its complete collapse, this ‘widespread misconduct’ continued until 2010. The chief executive of RBS, Stephen Hestor, under whose watch this happened, was brought in by the government to replace his disgraced predecessor Sir Fred Goodwin (‘Fred the Shred’), whose megalomaniac speculative empire-building crashed the bank in 2008. Hestor was to be a ‘clean pair of hands’. About the latest farrago of trickery greed and criminality, he says he is deeply sorry. Only 21 dishonest traders were responsible for such ‘wrongdoing’, he says. But he refuses to name them. He also refuses to resign. He will not be required to forfeit the £2m bonus he was awarded for 2010. This saga, involving manipulation of the rate used to price trillions of financial contracts world-wide, including household mortgages, will run and run. One step the government could have taken to reduce the risk of another banking crisis, would have been to introduce a form of ‘Glass-Steagal’ legislation that at one stroke would have separated retail from investment banking. Osborne refused to do it, opting instead to leave the system intact with possibly an ‘electrified fence’ between the two and threats of separation should the banks attempt to play the casino with depositors’ money.
Not a single bankster has gone to jail.
These are just a few observations about the current state of British politics and the economy. From such observations it is not possible to predict with any certainty what the outcome of an election may be two years from now. It may, however, be worthwhile to take a look at the state of the two coalition parties of government, the Tories and Liberal Democrats, and make some informed guesses about how their fortunes may look in 2015. It should go without saying that things that are unpredictable may happen during the coming two years. In early 1982, Margaret Thatcher and her government were deeply unpopular. The Falklands (Malvinas) War of that year changed her fortunes completely and she went on to win a landslide victory in the 1983 election.
First, the Tories. Recently, some commentators have taken to comparing the present state of the Tory party with the U.S. Republicans. There are some similarities. The Tories are deeply divided. Cameron is supposed to be a ‘modernizer’. A run of electoral failures between 1997 and 2010 and four changes of leadership, led Cameron and his cohort of modernizers to conclude that the party needed to be rid of its toxic image as a bunch of deeply Europhobic, bigoted, homophobic, hunting and shooting squires of the shires. Many grass-roots Tories resented having their traditions thus maligned, believing that they represented all that is best in Britain – or, at least, England. Of course, in this belief they are profoundly mistaken, but the deluded cling doggedly to their delusions. Rather as the Tea Party-goers revile less strident Republicans as traitors to the cause, many Tories – probably the majority of Tory MPs, and certainly the majority of Tories in the shires - regard Cameron in a similar light. This is laughable as Cameron and his lieutenants lead the most right-wing government this country has seen since Lord Liverpool (1812 – 1827). Apparently, among the Tory backbenchers there are dark plots brewing to get rid of Cameron. But to replace him with whom? There is simply no-one else in the parliamentary party with a hope in hell of succeeding. The darling of the Tory anti-Cameroons is Boris Johnson, Mayor of London. This eccentric fellow Etonian of Cameron’s, is regarded by his many admirers as a lovable buffoon. That he is a buffoon is true; whether he is loveable is very much a matter of taste. He almost certainly entertains ambitions to be prime minister, but at the moment he does not have a seat in parliament and would have to resign as mayor in order to contest an election. To achieve this and go on to replace Cameron within the next eighteen months would be impossible. Any such ambitions he may have will have to wait for fulfillment until after 2015, assuming that the Tories are defeated in the election.
The most recent sign of discontent with Cameron was seen in the parliamentary vote on gay marriage. Largely to please his Lib Dem coalition partners who strongly support gay marriage and who were still smarting at Cameron’s recent conciliation of his strongly Europhobic backbenchers by promising a referendum on EU membership, he agreed to a free vote on the bill. More than half the parliamentary Tory party voted against it. Nevertheless, the bill was carried overwhelmingly with the votes of the Lib Dems and Labour.
It used to be said that the Tories’ secret weapon was loyalty. Splits in the Tory party were very rare. But even when the party was united, they occasionally turned against their leader. This happened when it appeared that the leader had become a liability and would not win re-election. In the old days (before Tory leaders were elected), if a leader in opposition or a prime minister fell out of favour, the party’s grandees would politely but firmly tell him it was time to go. This happened to Anthony Eden after the Suez fiasco in 1956. After Tory leaders were elected (Heath in 1965) this arcane method was abandoned. Leaders who were reluctant to resign were removed through plotting and intrigue. Thatcher was removed in this way in 1990. Her successor, Major, was plagued by plots of this kind for most of his premiership ((1990 – 1997). Since that time the Tory party has become a party of splits and factions. It is now largely a party of the English shires. It has virtually no presence in Scotland and little in Wales. All the indications are that it will continue thus until the election. There is little chance though that Cameroon will be removed. Between now and the election he will reshuffle his cabinet, possibly replacing Osborne, but the Tories will soldier on wedded to the reviled Lib Dems, because there is nothing else they can do.
About the Liberal Democrats little need be said. Their leader, Nick Clegg, who was the darling of much of the electorate immediately prior to the 2010 election due to what was perceived to be his glittering performance in the pre-election debates, has become the most lame of lame ducks. His party’s poll ratings plummeted within weeks of forming the coalition and have never recovered. He is pilloried by the political cartoonists as Cameron’s puppet. He and his party are trapped in the coalition. If they really tried to break free, annulling the pact they struck in 2010, it would precipitate an election in which they would likely be annihilated whichever way it went. So they dare not do anything that might bring this on. They can only hope that in the time that is left to them they may be able to stage some kind of recovery. But to do this, they have to make an effort to distance themselves from their Tory partners. Not an enviable position. It must also be said that in 2010 they need not have entered into coalition with the Tories. The parliamentary arithmetic would have enabled them to form a coalition with Labour and some of the smaller parties such as the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists and the Northern Irish SDLP. They obviously rejected this proposal as they regarded it as less stable than what was offered them by the Tories. They were enticed by the prospect of power sharing in what promised to be a full five term parliament. It may turn out that this was the kiss of death for the Liberal Democrats.
So, to finish with some guess-work, unreliable though it may turn out to be. At present the Tories
have 304 seats and the Liberal Democrats have 56 – a total of 360 seats. Of the remaining small parties in parliament, the Tories could only rely on the Democratic Unionists, who at present have 8 seats. Most of the others are likely to be cast with the opposition. In the next election the Tories cannot rely on boundary changes, the hoped-for redrawing of which would have favoured them. The Lib Dems failed to back the changes. If, as may be expected, the opinion polls continue to favour Labour through to the next election, we may hazard a guess at the possible outcome. Let’s assume that the Lib Dem vote collapses and that their parliamentary representation is cut by 50% - not an improbable outcome. It is highly unlikely that much of this vote would go to the Tories. If most of it goes to Labour we may roughly assume that this would give Labour an extra 20 seats. But it is likely that the Tory vote will also be cut. They will not benefit from the hoped-for boundary changes. Let’s assume that they finish with 50 seats fewer than they have now, that is 256. Let’s assume that Labour wins 326 seats. This would produce a parliament in which Labour with 326 seats had an overall majority of one seat. Such an outcome would almost certainly mean some form of coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who would be reduced to about 28 seats. A Labour-led coalition could rely on the support of most of the minor parties, giving the government a majority of over 40 seats. Pure speculation, but not altogether impossible. In fact, it may well underestimate the actual result in 2015. It is likely that Labour may do far better than this.