Toward the end of January, the UK’s leading polling organisations quietly got together. The consensus emerging from this conclave was that the forthcoming general election would result in the Conservatives winning just under 40 per cent of the vote, Labour just over 30 per cent and the Liberal Democrats around 20 per cent. By this reckoning, the Tories would be denied an overall majority of seats and instead face a hung Parliament.
This is the stuff of nightmares for Britain’s pollsters, bringing back horrific memories of the UK’s last ‘tight’ election, in 1992, when nearly all of them got their predictions spectacularly wrong. Back then, they held a humiliating and much-ridiculed post-mortem; this time they have wisely held a pre-election meeting to, as one newspaper put it, ‘refine their methods.’
One of the nuances of politics, giving Gordon Brown cause for optimism, is that while by-elections (and, frequently, opinion polls) are referendums on the party in power, a general election represents a choice on which party should be in power. Voters feel free to protest at by-elections; meanwhile, in consideration of the long-term consequences, at general elections they tend to subject parties – especially the main opposition – to more intense scrutiny.
The over-riding issue of the 2010 election campaign is unusually clear: when and how to reduce the enormous fiscal deficit. Nonetheless it is somewhat reckless of me to put pen to paper a few whole weeks before this article sees publication. Back in the 1960s, Prime Minister Harold Wilson coined what has since become the most hackneyed cliché in the British political lexicon: ‘A week is a long time in politics.’ But Wilson’s comment preceded the advent of the 24-hour news cycle – now a day in politics seems like an eternity. Certainly for politicians it is. The only upside is that one day’s gaffe sooner becomes yesterday’s history.
For instance, who still speaks of the ludicrous attempted putsch against Gordon Brown at the beginning of the year? Bumps along the campaign trail can deliver a nasty shock, but as long as they don’t come in battalions their long-term impact is often negligible. They can even be beneficial: the Hoon/Hewitt letter seems to have had a calming effect on Labour ranks. The Cabinet, apparently taking their cue from the Tory slogan, ‘We can’t go on like this,’ is now presenting a semblance of unity.
As I write, it’s the Tories’ turn to hit a bumpy patch. Mrs Thatcher’s election campaigns of 1983 and 1987 are remembered for the ‘wobbly Thursdays’, a week before polling day, when the Iron Lady briefly lost her nerve. Unfortunately for David Cameron, he’s now had a few wobbly weeks. First was his confusion over his own policy of tax breaks for married couples, then came an official reprimand for twisting the official crime statistics, followed by the revelation of secret talks with the UUP and DUP at Hatfield House and finally the downgrading of spending cuts from ‘slash and burn’ to ‘snip and singe’. And as if those gaffes weren’t enough to trigger a bout of angina, Cameron’s two Party Treasurers were embroiled in controversy over their business dealings, while the Deputy Chairman, Lord Ashcroft of Belize, was given a deadline to declare whether he pays tax in this country. Even the Financial Times became exasperated by Cameron’s serial incompetence, instructing him to ‘get a grip.’
Of course, the Labour caravan has hit its own share of bumps. A coordinated pincer movement by Chancellor Darling and Lord Mandelson seems, finally, to have jogged the PM out of his rhetorical rut of ‘Labour investment versus Tory cuts’. Meanwhile, open class warfare, typified by Brown’s jibe that Cameron’s policies were ‘dreamt up on the playing fields of Eton’, is morphing into a more subtle attack on the Tories as the party of privilege and inequality – though Labour may prove unable to resist resurrecting photos of Dave, George and Boris in full Bullingdon Club regalia.
Now that we are in the run-up to the campaign proper, media focus is on the two main players, with the Liberal Democrats getting only the occasional look-in. That should change after Parliament is dissolved, when the broadcasting media will have to provide balanced coverage. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats’ leader, will participate in the first-ever televised debates, undoubtedly boosting his party’s profile and status.
Though the Lib Dems do not have access to anything like the financial resources of the two big parties (current estimated spending is £18 million by the Tories, £8 million by Labour and £2-3 million by the Lib Dems), they do have other advantages. The first thing newly-elected Lib Dem MPs do is entrench themselves in their constituencies by building up a personal following, making them remarkably impervious to national swings. Widely respected, and feared, for being the most effective grassroots campaigners, the Lib Dems are also slick at tailoring their message to fit different constituencies – or, less kindly, at being all things to everyone. Though they are likely to lose several seats to the Tories in the South and South-West, they may well make several compensating gains against Labour in the North.
If Nick Clegg can come across as a bit ‘Cameron-lite’, then the Lib Dems are helped immeasurably by his deputy, Shadow Chancellor Dr Vince Cable. A former Chief Economist with Shell, he has carved out a niche for himself as an economic oracle, almost (if not quite) above the party political fray. Apart from the ill-received ‘mansion tax’ proposal, Dr Cable has not put a foot wrong throughout the current financial crisis, having predicted the credit crunch and made sound policy judgments over Northern Rock, interest rates and the stimulus. Solid, reliable and avuncular, he is, unusually, a prophet with honour in his own country. Come election day, the rest of the Lib Dems are desperately hoping that some of this goodwill rubs off on them.
So we come back – as the campaign will constantly bring us back – to the dire state of the country’s finances and how to rescue them. This is the issue for the two main parties, but neither wants to go into anything as nasty as detail for fear of losing votes. The Conservatives have talked big but spelt out small, announcing specific cuts of a mere £7 billion when the deficit stands at a whopping £178 billion.
But broad brushstrokes can be dangerous, as the Tories recently found out. One might have thought that the unexpectedly anaemic growth of just 0.1 per cent in the final quarter of 2009 would have hit Labour hard. Not so. It only seemed to back up the Prime Minister and Chancellor that too early an exit from the stimulus could tip the UK into a double-dip recession. In contrast, the Conservatives, who – along with everybody else – had expected growth of around 0.4 per cent, panicked and created, in Vince Cable’s words, a ‘terrible muddle’ over their policy for reducing the deficit. Early, swingeing austerity cuts were suddenly diluted into ‘not particularly extensive ones this year,’ which amounted to a concession that Labour’s stance – backed, incidentally, by two Nobel economics laureates, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz – of no early exit from the stimulus and gradually halving it by 2014 was the wiser approach.
To say that the Tories have not shown a sure touch during the recession is a generous understatement. At every crisis point over the past two years they have made the wrong call – against taking Northern Rock into public ownership, against a fiscal stimulus and then for too early an exit from that stimulus. They will, of course, try to target the blame for the country’s horrendous financial straits on Chancellor Brown, who talked of prudence while acting profligately. It was indeed extreme hubris to announce ‘the end of boom and bust’ when these phenomena have been facts of economic life for 300 years or more.
The British electorate, however, are likely to tire of any prolonged attempt to re-fight past battles. It is the country’s economic future that concerns them. And as one voter put it to me, ‘In the middle of a force nine economic gale, do you throw your experienced captain overboard, however checkered his past, and replace him with what – a couple of cabin boys?’
We are, of course, in the middle of the race. This is a political Grand National, with many hurdles, twists and turns – visible or otherwise – to come. The most obvious of these will occur on 23 April, just two weeks before the likely polling day, when growth for the first quarter of 2010 is announced. National output will undoubtedly have been hit by VAT rising again to 17.5 per cent on 1 January and by the bitterest winter since 1962. Nobody will rest easily in Downing Street the night before.
Not for nearly two decades has the outcome of a general election been so uncertain. The Tory lead is shrinking. Yet David Cameron requires a swing of 7.1 per cent, the second biggest ever, to win an overall majority of just one. Voters may be fed up with Labour, but they remain unconvinced by the Tories. When the polls close at 10pm on that Thursday, we may be in for a very long, nerve-wracking night indeed before we know who governs Britain.