What happens exactly when a divided and dysfunctional government goes head to head with a divided and dysfunctional opposition?
It’s not a question we’ve really ever had to confront in modern British political history.
The last time a government was as discredited and shambolic as the Tories are today, it was in the early 1990s. John Major was battling a bunch of Eurosceptics he colourfully chose to describe as ‘bastards’ (one of whom, incidentally, was a former army lieutenant and all-round pain-in-the-rear-end called Iain Duncan Smith). The UK crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism and John Major pottered aimlessly for a few years initiating groundbreaking policy initiatives such as the Cones Hotline.
By this time, Neil Kinnock was gone. He had been replaced by the competent John Smith, who in turn was replaced by the irrepressible Tony Blair. Major’s card had been marked. With every passing month Labour looked more and more like a government in waiting.
Rewind another ten years and it was the Labour Party which had been bitterly divided and riddled with in-fighting. The Bennite wing had tried to seize control and had cultivated a power base in local government, best exemplified by councils such as Lambeth, Brent and the GLC. Trotskyist infiltration was rife and the Militant Tendency had effective control of Liverpool City Council.
By comparison, the Tories looked frighteningly competent and ruthless at this point. After the Falklands War and her landslide victory in the 1983 election, Margaret Thatcher was in her prime. She had purged a number of the Tory ‘wets’ and was pursuing her ideological agenda by taking on the miners and, subsequently, the News International printers at Wapping.
There was one moment of Conservative weakness and infighting – the Westland helicopter saga – which pitted Thatcher against her Europhile nemesis Michael Heseltine. Neil Kinnock was unable, however, to turn the government’s discomfort to Labour’s advantage.
In 2016, a fractured government is confronted by a fractious opposition. The public looks at Cameron, Osborne, IDS and the motley crew of Tories they elected just last year and wonders what the hell is going on. Under normal circumstances, the party’s division over the EU referendum and the Budget would spell misery at the polls in May. But the public looks at Labour and its leader and knows that it is no credible replacement for the Conservatives. It doesn’t even look that worthy a recipient of a protest vote, to be honest.
So where does this leave us? It’s like Novak Djokovic playing left-handed with an eye patch against Andy Murray, while the dour Scotsman ties his legs together with a sweat band.
The crazy thing is that we could easily see complete political turmoil in the months ahead.
What if the UK votes to leave the European Union and Cameron is utterly ruined? This could be followed by months of further Tory in-fighting, as well as threats from Scotland to withdraw from the UK in a second referendum. Tumultuous events, which could easily create a scenario for another general election – even within the confines of the rules for our fixed-term parliaments.
One thing is certain. The British people deserve so much better than the choice on offer right now. Incompetent right-wing ideologues on one side, tearing themselves apart on Europe. Dogmatic old-style socialists on the other, in complete denial about how out of touch they are with public sentiment.
Matter meets anti-matter. And the net result will be a scary democratic void.