Tuesday, 17 August 2010

101 Days and All’s (Mostly) Well..

Tonight, the Guardian has published an ICM poll showing the Conservatives and Labour level on 37% and the Liberal Democrats on 18%. The key move since the election has been a shift of 6% from the Lib Dems to Labour but overall the Coalition retains 55% support, a phenomenal figure for any Government.

It’s been just over 100 days since the conclusion of those remarkable five days in May which saw politics transformed and the emergence of a new partnership Government. The honeymoon hasn’t lasted and the new Government faces some very tough decisions. The Osborne Budget in June set the tone and the spending review, due in October, is likely to prove hugely unpleasant and divisive but the need to rein in runaway public spending and reduce the deficit was and remains acute. The Markets have backed the Coalition thus far but volatility and uncertainty remain.

Politically, the new Government faces three disparate forces of Opposition:

1) The Labour Opposition: not surprisingly, the defeated Labour Party has rediscovered its taste for opposition politics and the post-Brown leadership contenders seem to spend more time attacking the Government than discussing not only why Labour lost but what the road ahead is for Labour.

The problem for whoever wins the Labour leadership (Ed or David Miliband) is trying to define what Labour would be like back in Government. It’s fair to say that had Gordon Brown won the election, the Labour Government would be moving ahead with its own programme of cuts and the rationale for voting Labour in 2015 is far from clear. There’s no future in simply being the voice of those opposed to the Coalition because, IF the Coalition is successful and can for example offer tax cuts in 2014-15, the argument FOR voting Labour will be very hard.

On electoral reform, Labour continue to flip-flop. Having offered AV to the Liberal Democrats in the post-election negotiations, the leadership contenders are prevaricating and uncertain. They are clearly torn between the rock of a reform which would help them and the hard place of opportunism and the opportunity of damaging the Coalition.

2) The Conservative Opposition – sites like politicalbetting.com have illustrated the anger among some Conservative activists at events since May. If Labour supporters are struggling to come to terms with why they lost, Conservative activists have yet to come to terms with why they didn’t win. Initial support for the Liberal Democrats in joining forces with their party has quickly turned into spiteful hostility.

They feel it isn’t THEIR Government and every time they see Nick Clegg or Vince Cable, it’s a reminder of their failure and even David Cameron isn’t immune from their anger. Supported by media such as the Express and Mail, for whom a Conservative majority Government was the only desirable result, they spend their days sniping at the Liberal Democrats and privately hoping the Coalition will collapse even if that propels Labour into Government.

In their dishonest and immature sniping, they find common cause with the Labour Opposition and these Duopolists want nothing more than to see the Liberal Democrats smashed and the certainties of the Tory-Labour pendulum restored.

3) The Liberal Democrat Opposition – those who thought going into Coalition would lead to a flood of defections from MPs and Councillors have been proved wrong so far. It’s true that some activists, such as Nich Starling, were and remain deeply disillusioned with events. For those who joined in the Thatcher/Major years, the Conservatives were always “the enemy” but thirteen years of Labour authoritarianism and financial mismanagement have brought a convergence of liberalism and Cameronite Conservatism and this was the catalyst to Coalition.

Some in the Liberal Democrats failed to see the way the wind was blowing and this process began with Sir Menzies Campbell’s leadership and has continued under Nick Clegg who is arguably the most liberal leader since Jo Grimond.

Perhaps the angriest group of all has been those who voted Lib Dem on May 5th and then found the party they supported in the ballot box joining forces with the Tories. This sense of betrayal and anger is very real and palpable and won’t be easily replaced but it may be that IF the Coalition gets it right and Labour is seen to be an irrelevance, some will come back.

There has been a huge upheaval of political forces since May 5th and the prospect of meaningful realignment is perversely closer now than at any time since the autumn of 2003. For decades, re-alignment was seen in terms of a change on the Left with a new non-socialist progressive force coming to challenge the Conservatives. Both the SDP and the Blairite Labour party offered that but failed to achieve a permanent change.

Since the events of 2003, the climate has switched to the possibility of re-alignment on the Right with a new non-Conservative centre party emerging to take on Labour. For Conservatives, the unpleasant truth is that while traditional Conservative leaders and policies failed in 1997, 2001 and 2005, the more liberal approach was only a limited success in 2010. That said, liberal-conservatism, if successful, will look a more attractive option than conservatism and the risk of a schism in Tory ranks will grow.

The new Government has made mistakes – the departure of David Laws was a serious setback while both Michael Gove and Liam Fox have struggled to make a positive impact and Theresa May has disappointed some of the more strident conservative activists. However, the core relationship between Cameron and Clegg remains strong. Longer-term, this Government, like most of its predecessors, will likely see a conflict between numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cameron-Osborne relationship fracture under the impact of the spending cuts.

It’s the first time in my adult life I’ve supported the Government – it’s new and strange for me and I’m not the only one struggling to adjust.

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