8th May, 2010.
My latest Huff Post blog
Britain’s political elites are doing deals this weekend, trying to form a government. Gingerly making their way across the shifting tectonic plates of public opinion; wary of being tripped up again by voters.
For, let’s face it, the British electorate are no fools.
As the governor of the Bank of England apparently warned last week, they are mad as hell. Austerity measures will not be tolerated, and will keep any governing party out of power for a generation .
So there is a lot to lose.
Voters listened carefully last autumn as David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party and his Finance Minister, George Osborne turned a blind eye to the reckless behaviour of the City of London. They ignored the extent to which taxpayers had bailed out private bankers, and taken the full burden of their losses on to the public sector balance sheet. Instead Osborne implied that responsibility for economic failure lay with millions of public sector workers, and the essential services they provide.
In a politically disastrous move, Osborne threatened to punish the innocents with a ‘new Age of Austerity’ , while promising to give an inheritance tax break to the 3,000 richest families in the country. He vowed “to freeze the pay of millions of public sector workers, cut benefits enjoyed by the middle classes and cap civil service pensions at £50,000 a year.”
As a result, and despite the fact that Conservatives were at that point 17 points ahead of Labour and headed for a landslide – their vote slumped.
Canny British voters refused to behave like turkeys voting for Christmas, and steadily withdrew support.
There then began a concerted effort to silence Osborne (it seems he was locked up in a cupboard for the duration of the election campaign). Nevertheless, the damage was done, and the Tories failed to muster a majority of seats in the House of Commons last Thursday.
Labour, under the leadership of Gordon Brown and to the surprise of many, managed to staunch the political wounds inflicted earlier on his party by his predecessor, Tony Blair. 13.5 million had voted for Labour in 1997 – in good faith. By 2005 and during ‘the good times’ when Britain was growing at 3% per annum – Labour’s vote had plummeted to 9.6 million – which is why Blair had to go. He had lost the Labour Party 3.9 million voters.
Then, just as Gordon Brown took over the premiership, ‘the world economy fell off a cliff’.
Economic failure, unemployment and the failure to rein in bankers cost Brown’s government about 900,000 votes last week – fully 3 million votes less than were lost under Tony Blair.
In other words, Labour’s lost voters were lost long before 6th May, 2010.
Sceptical of the Conservatives and fed up with Labour, voters turned their attention to the ‘new boy’ on the block – Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats.
Excited by the media spotlight, the inexperienced Clegg blundered, fell victim to hubris, and asked incredulously how Mr Brown could “squat” in No 10 even if Labour came third in the popular vote.
In the event it was Mr Clegg’s Liberal Democrats that trailed in third place.
As quickly as they had risen, his party’s hopes were dashed – thwarted by shrewd voters.
Nevertheless, Cameron and Clegg have grabbed the post-election spotlight, and are doing deals behind closed doors to forge a coalition, and force out Brown.
Many expect the negotiations to fail, for want of common ground – on for example, the cancellation of the Trident nuclear submarine, and electoral reform. So power-sharing is doomed to fail, if not this week, then by this autumn.
In the meantime, the real deal-makers are to be found elsewhere.
Across the Irish Sea . In Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The fact is that none of the political parties can afford another election campaign for the next year or so, and the Lib Dems and Tories are too far apart for a sustainable power-sharing deal. Cameron knows this. So expect the Conservatives to put in calls to the 8 members of the Democratic Unionist Party, in the hope that their support will enable David Cameron to govern as a minority government.
This way they would keep both Labour and the Liberal Democrats at bay.
That is, if they are not dislodged by the tectonic plates of ‘austerity’ – that could keep Conservatives out of power for the next generation.