Nick Clegg and David Cameron face more of the same. Ed Miliband’s future is more complicated. He has choices
What a difference a year makes. 2012 began with a limping economy, the Tories fighting the Lib Dems and each other like rabid ferrets in a sack, Nick Clegg’s party flat-lining in the polls at an existentially threatening level and Labour still with a lot to do to establish its credibility as an alternative government. 2012 draws to a close with the situation dramatically, well, the same.
Under the surface of the fleeting frenzies and more serious episodes of the past 12 months, there is a sense that British politics has got a bit stuck. The coalition is fractious and unpopular. The nadir was George Osborne’s disastrous budget, which unravelled over many excruciating weeks for the government. The hostile reception for the chancellor at the Paralympics produced one of 2012’s best political jokes. Why did 80,000 people boo George Osborne? Because that’s the maximum capacity of the Olympic stadium. The budget was the turning point of the year. On all the main polling series, it was followed by Labour establishing a lead of around eight points, which it has held ever since.
Yet the coalition endured the past year, and is most likely to survive 2013 as well, if only because its very unpopularity gives the Tories and the Lib Dems a mutual interest in avoiding an early election. 2012 was a year in which Labour mastered the arts of opposition, including cynical and opportunistic opposition, as when it helped Conservative rebels to sabotage reform of the Lords and combined with Tory Euro-haters to defeat the government over the European budget. But the year ends with Labour still struggling to convince sufficient voters that it deserves a return to power.
I have said before that the headline poll numbers are often a less reliable indicator of the true position of the parties than how voters respond to the question: who do you most trust with the economy? As the budget fell apart and the economy dipped back into recession, Labour narrowed the Tory lead on this crucial measure. But the credibility gap has opened up again since the autumn financial statement. Labour is now behind by 11 points according to the latest ICM poll for the Guardian. This despite further admissions from the chancellor that his original goal of eliminating the deficit in five years is in shreds. All in all, then, 2012 was something of a Groundhog Year. The question about 2013 is whether that stalemate can be broken and to whose advantage.
The coalition parties will soon publish an audit of their performance in the first half of this parliament. Since they have written it themselves, I think one of the safer predictions we can make about 2013 is that the review will be favourable. More interesting will be whether it is accompanied by anything resembling a renewed coalition agreement for the remaining half of the parliament. It has always been tricky for Messrs Cameron and Clegg to present themselves as united in an endeavour to put the country right while at the same advertising their differences in order to reassure the blue and yellow tribes that they are not betraying their respective party’s fundamental beliefs. This tension will become more acute in the 12 months ahead.
Mr Clegg recently signalled that he intends to step up the degree to which he emphasises where the Lib Dems disagree with the Tories. I understand why the Lib Dems feel the imperative to challenge the notion that they are compliant accomplices marching to Conservative tunes. But I am not sure whether this strategy is doing them all that much good. They have been hammered at byelections, coming in a miserable eighth in Rotherham, and continue to languish at dismal ratings in the polls. While differentiation is of uncertain benefit to the Lib Dems, it can definitely do harm to the Conservatives among centrist voters by validating Labour’s contention that David Cameron leads a gang of unreconstructed rightwingers. You could argue that this doesn’t matter that much, because elements of the Conservative party – see the furious internal row over gay marriage – are capable of harming their party without anyone else’s assistance.
Another of the easier forecasts to make about 2013 is that David Cameron’s problems managing his own party will get worse, not least because of Tory panic induced by the rise of Ukip. Nigel Farage’s band did well enough at some of 2012’s byelections to humiliate the Lib Dems and scare the Tories. If the right sort of seat comes up, it is quite possible to see Ukip winning a byelection in 2013. That menace on their right flank augments the pressure on David Cameron to define his position on Europe. A big speech on the subject has been long awaited. Indeed, it has been so long awaited that even the prime minister has started to make jokes about it, recently comparing it to tantric sex, and implying that the tantalising build-up means that his ejaculation on Europe will be the more orgasmically satisfying when he finally delivers. One of the more confident predictions that I make about 2013 is that Mr Cameron will be proved wrong about this and he will fail to sate the Tory party’s destructive passions about Europe.
There is no brand of political Viagra that could do the trick. The Conservative party is now split three ways, and deeply so, between a tiny sliver of Pro-Europeans, a large group of Grudging Belongers and an increasing number of Better Off Outers. The prime minister might be able to satisfy the Grudging Belongers if he can map out a road to a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU, though I have yet to meet anyone who can offer a wholly plausible explanation of how the rest of Europe is going to be persuaded to rewrite all the rules to suit British interests.
Whatever he comes up with – even if he offered free winter holidays in the Caribbean for every citizen of the UK courtesy of Herman von Rompuy – he will never placate his party’s Better Off Outers.
A fissiparous coalition that has lost the benefit of the doubt with many voters. A fragile economy in which living standards are still being squeezed. More cuts, and deep ones, to come. All this sounds highly promising for Ed Miliband. He goes into 2013 having enjoyed a more encouraging 2012 than either of his principal rivals. At the beginning of this year, there were continuing rumbles about the Labour leader’s position. No one serious now talks about putsching him. Messrs Cameron and Clegg surely envy that. This is not to say that all of his colleagues are brimming with confidence that Mr Miliband will lead them back into power after just one term of opposition, a feat performed by Labour only once before in its existence as a party. But it is the case that it is pretty much the universal view that he will take them into the next election. His personal ratings have improved, though, since they are still mainly in negative territory, it might be more accurate to say that they are not as poor as they once were. He thinks he has found a winning theme with the “One Nation” trope that he launched in his party conference speech. The phrase occurs no less than nine times in his New Year’s message. “One Nation” provides a rhetorical frame. What is missing is the picture inside the frame. It may be far too early for Labour to be trying to write a detailed manifesto for an election that probably lies two and a half years away, but in 2013 his rebooted policy review will have to start producing some concrete results. The slogan will have to be matched with some substance on policy if Labour is to succeed in the difficult evolution from effective opposition to credible government-in-waiting.
Senior Labour people remain anxious, and understandably so, that their poll lead is not as strong as it ought to be given the state of the economy and such a shambolic year for the government. They fear that their current advantage could melt away in the event of a solid return to growth and a more competent performance by the coalition.
There is also truth in the idea that the government’s travails are not unalloyed good news for Labour. The grim state of the national finances means that Labour is confronted with very tough choices about its own priorities. An immediate example is thrown up by Mr Miliband’s decision to oppose the three-year real-terms cut in benefits. Labour will be under pressure to say where it would find the money to make up the difference. That is emblematic of a wider challenge the party has yet to address. They have told us that they would not be able to reverse every coalition cut. That is the easy part. The hard part is saying which.
In this sense, 2013 presents Ed Miliband with more opportunities but also more perils than his rivals. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have only limited room for manoeuvre. They are lashed to the mast of George Osborne’s economic judgment. They will plough on, hoping that there will eventually be a sustained recovery and that it will be accompanied by a turnaround in the fortunes of their parties. By contrast, Mr Miliband has options. His big, defining choices are still ahead of him.