From coalition to chaos – get ready for the age of indecision

Whichever major party loses, its leader will go, and no one will be keen on another vote any time soon

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

A recent email from Samantha Cameron started an intriguing debate in the Prime Minister’s social circle. It was an invitation to a Christmas party at Chequers and word quickly spread on the Notting Hill grapevine that the PM was convening an unusually large gathering of friends at his country retreat. So, the guests wondered: were they being asked around because the Camerons were having a last hurrah at Chequers, sensing that they would be evicted by the electorate? Or was the bash being thrown because they were in celebratory mood, convinced that the political tide has turned their way?

This confusion is understandable. We might only be three months away from the start of the election campaign but only a fool would predict the result with much confidence. Not since 1923, when Ramsay MacDonald became Labour’s first Prime Minister despite the Tories winning the most seats and votes, has there been a British general election which has been so hard to call.

Next May’s election will be a war of the weak between Labour and the Conservatives. Labour has two problems that would normally be considered fatal for an opposition: they trail on both economic competence and leadership. Indeed, a poll ahead of the Autumn Statement found that it was not only David Cameron and George Osborne who were more trusted than Ed Miliband and Ed Balls on the economy but Nigel Farage too, albeit by a small margin.

But the Conservatives are hardly short of problems. They have not won an election for 22 years now, and remain becalmed in the low 30s in the opinion polls. It must put down the Ukip insurgency, and translate the economic recovery into a feel-good factor. Then there is the return of Alex Salmond and prospect of an SNP-Labour parliamentary alliance. Even the most optimistic Tory cabinet ministers accept that a majority is more than the Tories can realistically hope for.

There are some signs that Ukip’s advance is beginning to flag. A major party figure privately concedes that their margin of victory in the Rochester by-election was disappointing. I would also expect tensions over the party’s strategy to grow in the New Year now that Douglas Carswell, who is running its general election campaign, is determined to show that Ukip is about far more than immigration. Those close to Nigel Farage believe that immigration has to be the dominant theme, as it is the party’s biggest vote winner.

But it is worth remembering that the political class has repeatedly expected Ukip’s advance to stall only to find that Farage has found a way to keep his bandwagon rolling. No one expected the two defections he secured and, as senior No. 10 figures admit, the Tories won’t know for certain that there are no more coming until the start of the election campaign proper.

The SNP’s surge after its defeat in the Scottish independence referendum is one of the most remarkable events in modern British political history. But even Alex Salmond stops short of predicting that his party will be as successful as opinion polls currently suggest. He tells me on page 48 that the SNP will win a ‘barrel-load’ of seats — but even if they only take a dozen constituencies from Labour, it could have a major impact on the overall election result.

The Liberal Democrats’ dire opinion poll rating will likely not improve much between now and May. But it is deceptive: Lib Dem MPs survive by local reputation and a couple of dozen are almost certainly well enough dug in to hang on. The Greens, who have been polling better than the Lib Dems, won’t win any more seats. Their rise in support is threatens Miliband’s political strategy of re-uniting the left-wing vote.

Tory cabinet ministers believe that if the party wins most votes or most seats, Cameron should carry on as Prime Minister — putting pressure on the minor parties to come to an agreement with him. But should it take three leaders to put together a working Commons majority, any deal will be inherently unstable. How long would you give a government whose Commons majority relied on getting Simon Hughes and Ian Paisley Jr through the same division lobby? Any marriage with three parties in it is, after all, a crowd.

The Tories would be unwise to put their fate in the hands of the Democratic Unionist Party. They are not very dependable, as Owen Paterson warned the Tory leadership when he was Northern Ireland spokesman.

So we could be seeing an end to the era of stable government, let alone of landslide majorities. Next summer, we may enter a world where the government is always a vote or two from collapse. It could be fun to watch. But the bond markets have no sense of humour: Britain will need to borrow another £200 billion over the next five years, and unstable governments pay more interest.

Of course, few expected this coalition to be as stable as it has been. In its four-and- a-half years, it has lost only one vote on its own legislation — on a minor measure about pub tenancies. All its fiscal measures have been passed comfortably. Salmond’s SNP minority government, formed in 2007, also surprised critics by delivering four years of stable government. Britain’s politics might be more adaptable than people think.

Whichever major party loses next year will not be keen to force the country straight back to the polls. Whether it’s Labour or the Tories, the losing party will change its leader, and that new leader will want time to settle in before starting to think about how to engineer another election.

But if politics continues on its present course, we might well look back on this current coalition as a model of stability.

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  • Raddiy

    “There are some signs that Ukip’s advance is beginning to flag.”

    Hope springs eternal, eh Jimmy Boy.

    If you had a quid for the amount of times you have made this vacuous claim, you would be a very rich ‘useful idiot ‘ indeed. Why don’t you refrain from trying to give the impression you have some insight into the inner workings of UKIP, when it is shockingly clear your analysis is based on nothing more than a political version of pin the tail on the donkey, picking random statements of ‘fact’ and then selling them as insight.

    Give it up mate, press the reset button and start again without the inbuilt bias in your reporting, and you never know perhaps one day you may be taken seriously for your political analysis.

  • David

    I see no evidence that Ukip’s advance is beginning to flag. Where exactly is this evidence ? In fact, all the evidence is to the contrary. But if you say it often enough, close your eyes and cross your fingers very hard, when you open your eyes again – hey presto – you’ve been wrong again !
    Ukip has only just started pointing out the ugly truth about what Labour has done, deliberately, to worsen the lives of the working class of this country – we’ve got a long way to go yet ! There’s lots more supporters to bring into the fold.

  • maurice12brady

    Usual crap! — We’re offered an intelligent analysis of current political attitudes — & what do we get? The Sam/Dave show & errant UKIP returning to the fold. Insulting peoples intelligence seems to be the current journalistic modus operandi.

  • Andrew Smith

    “Not since 1923, when a landslide gave the Labour party its first victory, has there been a British general election which has been so hard to call.”

    1923 returned a hung Parliament. The Cons were the largest party but were unable to form a government. I would hardly call that a Labour landslide. So a C- for this effort.

  • Conrad Mason

    Utter nonsense the coalition is about as stable as a ship on the high seas without a rudder! Pathetic analysis of UKIP it is a party of doers not liars. Typical tory non sequiturs proliferate as the ship sinks below the waves. Toryism and cronyism is dead in the water. They will sink without trace drowning not waving, not hallo but goodbye sailor and good riddance!

  • cmason

    If you wish to see a repeat of gross financial mismanagement, mass increases in immigrant “vote buying” benefits free for all and the creation of hundreds of thousands of Public service ‘non jobs’ then it would make sense to vote Labour in May 2015. But then people who vote Labour, normally do’ because their Mum and Dad did. It takes a certain amount of intelligence, ‘not’ to vote Labour!

    • mik keely

      …..and neither would one vote for the vile and filthy torys either!
      For tory and liebour, read ”Donkey party’s”.
      Both as bad as one another and BOTH have let this country down since AT LEAST WW2. Supporters, hangers on, the party faithful and the tribalistic voters should hang their heads in great shame.

      • cmason

        Give UKIP a chance it could not be any worse than the lot we have now!

        • pointlesswasteoftime

          Want to bet?

        • Oh yes it could.

      • The Facts of Life remain Conservative.
        Do you REALLY think Brown & Balls would have reduced the Great Labour Deficit by more than a third by now?

    • So why oh why is this not being pointed out every day?
      Hopefully the ammunition is being saved for the campaign.
      But great post, great points, all well made!



    • Terry Field

      Nah – vote Peppa Pig – lets hear it for free bacon sarnies!!!!!!



  • mik keely

    Another ‘biased’ news report!!

  • Terry Field

    Looks bad in Britian. Here in Ulan Bator, all is well; power is strongly held and directed with clarity. The Yak butter is wholesome, the maiden’s eye’s bright, and the men’s thighs strong.

    • Damaris Tighe

      Very pleased for you. May your yak butter not curdle & your maidens’ wombs be fruitful.

      • Terry Field

        The wombs are now performing – I have been busy!!!!!!!!! Our butter is sweet and the sheep are having a week off (!)

        • Damaris Tighe

          Good to have a chuckle in these cold, short, depressing days …

          • Terry Field

            Yes. It’s so bloody bad I’d slit my throat if I didn’t laugh about life. Must be hell in the old first world where you lot live. At least we have mass FGM to cheer us up!!

  • Jimmy

    UKIP will do well in the 2015 General Election because they are the ONLY political party who dare to stand up and say what the people think. Labour’s two Big Ed’s – Balls and Red Ed Milliband, were the chief advisers at The Treasury during 13 disatrous years of LieBore misrule – the men who helped spend money they knew the country didn’t have. Now thwey trot out the Blairite lie “You can trust us with the economy”. Yeah, and pigs would fly if they had wings!
    We need to give full Independence and equality to all four member states of the UK, and the choice to remain part of the UK or not. Then we can also have an English Parliament; something we have never had in hundreds of years. All the English are here for is to pay for the excessive support given to other countries. Set them free, and we will finally be on the road to achieving freedom too!

  • Ipsmick

    If Labour manges to see that there may be some mileage in pointing out that Osborne’s economies will return us to Dickensian conditions, or that there may be something to be learned in the tories receiving £20 million plus from hedge funds, then it might be able to generate a little electoral appeal. It won’t though. It allows the extreme right wing to write the script.


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    • paulus

      Well I assume this is UKIP’s new manifesto, bit short on specifics but seems comprehensive.

      Well I think they can all agree with this manifesto excepting : free health care, OAP winter fuel allowances, free bus passes and a discount for pensioners at the barbers. Bobs your uncle a non conformist, neo liberal nirvana.

  • Lina R

    I’m hoping for another ConLib coalition but may be in the minority on that one. I’m dreading a Labour-SNP alliance – the economy would never recover.