Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The next general election may be closer than we think

A nuclear bunker in south-west London housing ConDem Minister Vince Cable's constituency surgery. Picture: Sea Change staffer

Back in 2001, when I stood for parliament against the Liberal Democrat Ed Davey in Kingston & Surbiton, we were debating his party’s nonsensical, uncosted manifesto pledges. Believing they didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever forming a government, the Lib Dems felt able to promise pretty much anything they wanted to the electorate. Naturally, I was well briefed by the Labour Party on the financial burden the policies would impose on the hard-pressed British taxpayer and the spurious calculations that lay behind them, so had a lot of good ammunition up my sleeve.
One of Ed’s first lines of defence was his academic credentials and he reminded the audience that he had a Master’s degree in economics. In one of my slightly sharper contributions to political discourse in south-west London, I observed that it was amazing how people could hold a Master’s degree in economics, yet seemingly still not be able to add up.

Ed Davey comes to mind when I observe the current plight of his government colleague, Dr Vince Cable. The former chief economist for Shell, who is MP for the neighbouring constituency of Twickenham, is an exceptionally intelligent man too. But for all his book learning and commercial experience, he is left this week looking like the court jester. Not only has he foolishly shared his intimate thoughts with unknown visitors to his constituency surgery, but he has demonstrated a naive belief in his own ability to bring down the government. In reality, Cable’s ‘nuclear’ option is no Hiroshima. It’s a firecracker that he doesn’t even know how to light.

The decision by David Cameron and Nick Clegg to keep Cable in the Cabinet is used by some to demonstrate just how important the cerebral Lib Dem sexagenarian is to the Coalition. I would argue it shows their weakness and indecision rather than Cable’s strength. They could happily have dumped him, because the guy is a spent force. Can he really act as a rallying point for disaffected Lib Dems? Not any more. He is someone whose credibility has been shot to pieces over the past six months. No one knows what he stands for and no one much cares. He has undergone a remarkable transformation from Moses to Mr Bean.

Cameron and Clegg may still fear a Lib Dem backlash, but the real threat to the Coalition is actually from the smouldering anger of backbench Tories. They can’t abide the way that their leader plays nicey-nicey with the Liberals. Had a Tory made the same mistakes as Cable, they argue, he’d be out on his ear. They’re also horrified by the lukewarm support that Cameron is giving to the Tory campaign in Oldham, where a byelection is being fought following the ruling against former Labour Minister Phil Woolas. It’s almost as if Cameron would prefer the Lib Dem to beat Labour in what was previously a fairly close three-way marginal.

I have long argued that the Coalition is much less stable than many commentators would lead you to believe. The people who need the Coalition are its leaders. It is not wanted by the majority of Tory MPs or party activists or, for that matter, by their counterparts in the Lib Dems. I don’t accept that this is a similar situation to the one encountered by Tony Blair in 1997 – a populist leader facing down his internal party critics. The former Labour leader had effectively killed off meaningful opposition in his party before he assumed office. Indeed, the process had started much earlier, back in the 1980s, with Neil Kinnock. There has been no such groundwork in the other two parties, because no one anticipated the extent of horse-trading and compromise that the mathematics of the 2010 election threw up.

There is, I feel, a 50/50 chance of a general election taking place in 2011. The Coalition is on very rocky ground and a few more unfortunate events could create a seismic shift in the political plates that underpin the government. Cameron is nothing without Clegg. And the excruciating Clegg is less than nothing without Cameron. The Lib Dems would, of course, be the main losers in any sudden upheaval. Their best hope by far is to stay the course, change the electoral system and agree some kind of informal pact with the Tories in 2015. But the tide of history has a habit of scuppering the best-laid plans.

Ed Miliband was a poor choice as Labour leader. Had his brother assumed this role – as was the wish of the majority of party members – I think the ConDems would be on the ropes already. Instead, they’re back in their corner, nursing wounds but hoping to triumph on points over the full 12 rounds. Ed will have opportunities in 2011 to deliver a knock-out blow. Whether he’s up to the task remains to be seen.

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