And so, as we approach the end of the most remarkable year in post war British politics, we should take a few moments away from the seasonal celebrations to reflect on the events of the past twelve months, and to contemplate the likely changes that lie ahead. The latter is the more difficult for, as John Major said when he found himself in Number Ten twenty years ago, ‘who would have thought it?’
A year ago everyone knew we were entering an election year but few people in the corridors of Westminster thought that May would bring a coalition government. Pessimistic Tories, and optimistic Labour supporters, talked of the possibility of a minority government struggling to survive. Most politicians and commentators, however, thought that the near certain outcome of the May election would be that Mr Cameron would enter Number Ten as head of Conservative government with a working majority.
Now, with all the benefits of hindsight, what is glaringly obvious is that we would now be facing – or indeed might already have had – a second General Election if a minority government had emerged after 6 May. And if Mr Cameron had indeed had his working majority the danger of discontent flaring into riotous disorder would be real indeed, as he sought to battle against attacks from all sides in the House of Commons.
As it is, we end 2010 with what many would regard as a surprisingly stable coalition government. Without any doubt the most significant change on the political scene has been the coming of age of the Liberal Democrats, under the influence of their relatively new leader. For decades the Liberal Democrats, and the Liberals before them, entered every election knowing that there was no chance of government, and quite obviously completely discounting the possibility of any sort of coalition, alliance or responsibility. This meant that they could promise or pledge to support any cause, however difficult, to champion any change, however unlikely, in the certain knowledge that they would never have executive responsibility.
The most revealing comment of the past 12 months was Mr Clegg’s admission that he signed the pledge on student loans without knowing the facts, and that when he knew them and had joint responsibility, he realised his mistake. Knowledge of the facts and figures of government, and joint responsibility for governing the UK, has concentrated the minds of leading Liberal Democrats, and turned able critics of almost anything any government did, into responsible advocates of a hard, but realistic, line.
So what does 2011 hold for us all? I believe that the coalition government will hold – however troubled the waters – regardless of the outcome of any referendum on electoral reform. As I write there is the possibility that the House of Lords will hold up the Bill paving the way for that Referendum – currently pencilled in for May of next year. Even assuming that it will go ahead in May, I think there is a high probability that the British electorate will reject the Alternative Vote (AV), a voting system designed to elect one winner. After all, we have just had an interesting illustration of what AV can produce. Without casting aspersions on the undoubted qualities and abilities of the new Leader of the Opposition, it is quite clear that the majority of Labour MPs and constituency parties wanted his brother. It was the Unions and AV that gave him victory.
I have never been able to understand why those who denounce the unfairness of first past the post and advocate a change have not been willing to champion the two round election. Under this system only the two leading candidates would feature in the play-off and everyone elected to Parliament would, therefore, have to obtain more than 50 per cent. After the first round, electors would have a chance to reflect on how things were going nationally, and on the individual merits of the two candidates. When I go into a polling booth I want my candidate to win, but if that candidate is eliminated, I want a chance to consider before expressing a preference for someone else.
Of course, the Bill that is seeking to introduce a referendum on the Alternative Vote is also seeking to transform the House of Commons by reducing its size. I see the crude logic in that, and indeed I do not disagree with it in theory, but I fear that Mr Cameron might come to regret that he did not treat that pledge in his Manifesto as Mr Clegg has had to treat his on student finance. For the upheaval that is going to be caused by eliminating 60 constituencies can hardly be underestimated. Historically, constituencies have never crossed county or ward boundaries. Now many of them will have to. Local identities will be severely challenged and changed – and there will be a number of thoroughly disgruntled MPs who find themselves without a seat, or much hope of getting one. ‘Always keep your troops on side’ should be the maxim of every political leader. Will the Leaders who back these changes be able to do that?
As we were going to press, it was announced that
Sir Patrick had been elevated to the Peerage and he will shortly be taking his seat in the House of Lords.