Wednesday, 28 December 2011

2011: a year in politics

A year ago, we could have described what had been a “challenging” twelve months in UK politics. And, if 2010 were challenging, then 2011 has been extraordinary. Harold Macmillan’s “events, dear boy, events” has never been a truer adage of the way politics can take unexpected turns.
David Cameron could surely not have expected an easy ride upon taking office as the Prime Minister of the first coalition government in over seventy years in May 2010. Convincing the electorate of the Conservatives’ deficit reduction strategy – and the consistent trashing of Labour’s record as big-spending, big-government and economically reckless - was the easy part. A generally acquiescent media helped Cameron and his party along the way, while the Liberal Democrats, as coalition partners, raised no significant objections to this line. But with no firm plan for growing the economy - austerity being the only dish on the menu – Cameron’s party has found that governing as if it were a single-party government with little opposition is not an option. Conflict would have to be engineered, distractions capitalised upon and personalities exploited if his party were to convince the electorate that despite being in coalition, it was still business as usual for the Tories.

As distractions go, no-one predicted quite how the Tories’ biggest friends in the media – Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers – would face such a spectacular crisis in the way that they did in July 2011 when news emerged that the mobile phone messages of Milly Dowler, a young girl who had been horrifically murdered in 2002, had been hacked into by News of the World journalists shortly after she disappeared. Within a week of these revelations – and many more - the paper was closed. Only a month or so before, the political establishment, including the Labour leader Ed Miliband, had cavorted quite happily in the company of Murdoch himself at News International’s summer party. All of a sudden, the political class was in crisis yet again, achieving a hat trick of scandal after cash for peerages and the MPs’ misuse of their expenses. Huge questions remain over Cameron’s personal judgement, both as Prime Minister and while in opposition over his hiring of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as Communications Director, and it remains to be seen whether the resultant Leveson Inquiry into the ethics and practices of the media will draw out any hard lessons for politicians.

Despite the embarrassment of his murky media connections, Cameron, like Tony Blair, has demonstrated his own Teflon-like quality. Nothing sticks. What's more, he has found it convenient to direct flak in the direction of the Liberal Democrats. As leader of that party and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg has never redeemed himself from the consequences of his party’s sudden u-turn in government in introducing fees of up to £9,000 for some university courses. A referendum on moving to the ‘Alternative Vote’ system for General Elections did not result in a Great Liberal Moment – with an overwhelming 67% of the voting electorate saying that actually, they didn’t agree with Nick. Any surge in enthusiasm for the Lib Dems during the 2010 election campaign had vanished without a trace by mid-2011 as the party struggled to make the transition from party of protest to party of government - still very much the third party, stubbornly languishing at around 10% in the opinion polls despite the trappings of office.

Meanwhile, there were plenty of distractions on the international stage. With the disaster of Iraq was still deep in the political consciousness, a decision to take military action in Libya eventually paid off with the eventual demise of Colonel Gadaffi. Rather, it was Europe that once again presented itself as a pressure point for the Tories, exacerbated by crisis in the Eurozone and Tory backbenchers’ desire to score one over their coalition partners. The supposed ‘veto’ wielded by Cameron against a treaty designed to save the Euro (supposedly threatening the City’s financial interests) left the UK more politically isolated than it has been for years. And although large numbers of British people remain of the view that things like immigration, justice, defence and employment rights should be decided by Britain alone, it remains to be seen however whether there is any appetite for the EU having a less of a role in areas such as the environment, foreign policy and trade rules. Asked about the UK’s continued membership of the EU in a referendum, one poll suggested that only 41% of voters wanted to stay in, with 41% wanting to leave – a sharp shift from recent polls indicating that up to 50% wanted to leave. Other countries went ahead with negotiations anyway, with a cost in personal and diplomatic relations, most graphically illustrated by President Sarkozy’s refusal to shake Cameron’s hand during a televised clip of the summit. There is no love lost between the two men.

Whatever happens in UK politics in 2012, it is less predictable than ever. While the coalition has remained stable, the condition of the UK economy does not show any great signs of improvement. Predicted growth has not materialised, youth unemployment is unacceptably high and the promise of many more vacancies in the private sector to replace those lost in the public sector failed to materialise. The next year will mark the halfway point of this notional five-year parliament – a point at which the Chancellor, George Osborne, may well have to adopt ‘Plan B’ for reviving the economy and creating jobs. Cynically, the government may choose to play the anti-EU card rather than admit defeat on the economy.

But with the aftermath of the English riots still raw in voters’ minds, there are evidently opportunities to bolster the government’s law and order credentials, a policy area in which Labour has been gaining some ground. Labour aren't keen to say too much about the deficit, or what they might do about it. But they are also aware that most voters reluctantly accept the cuts, and, despite the obvious pain, traditional opposition arguments based on public spending, jobs and growth may not wash with voters. Miliband will need a sharper strategy and need to think on his feet in response to the government attempts to woo voters with emotional causes such as the Europe question, or the question of whether they feel safe in their towns and cities, which ultimately have little impact on the money in voters’ pockets. 

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