Tory majority, or Labour lead in a hung parliament? What a way to kick off . . .

The election campaign begins.

The choppers are out in force, with aerial pics of the Brown motorcade making the one-mile drive back from Buckingham Palace. My former colleagues at Sky News are in "split-screen" mode, with David Cameron on one half, gesticulating and pontificating, and a locked-off shot of a solitary policeman standing outside 10 Downing Street.

So what's the mood inside the bunker? A Brown aide tells me that the PM has a spring in his step. "He's at his best when faced with a tough challenge but he knows he has a plan, so he's fine," says the aide.

And I can believe it. I doubt that the Prime Minister will be punching the back of the front seat of his Jaguar this morning. Not if he's got a copy of the Guardian inside the car with him. The paper's latest ICM poll shows the Tory lead over Labour cut to 4 points for the first time in almost two years -- a lead that, if replicated on 6 May, would leave Labour as the largest single party in the House of Commons.

The Guardian's Julian Glover writes:

On a uniform national swing, these figures could leave Labour 30 seats short of an overall majority. Even if the Tories perform better than average in marginal seats -- as most people expect -- David Cameron would struggle to establish a secure parliamentary basis for power.

Amazing, eh? Who'd have predicted it? Not the great and the good of the anti-Brown lobby or commentariat. And certainly not the arch-critic of all things Brown, John Rentoul of the Independent on Sunday. Only a few weeks ago, John was telling me he had no doubt in his mind that Cameron's Conservatives would win a comfortable, double-digit parliamentary majority. This morning, according to a Paul Waugh tweet, John said:

Nobody, certainly not me, expected Gordon Brown to be in the position he is today.

Not quite. For the last time (I promise!), let me refer you all to the rather prescient column that James Macintyre and I wrote for the NS in June, in the wake of Labour's disastrous performance in the Euro elections, in which we referred to the "Tories' precarious electoral position" and concluded:

If . . . the Brown government can concentrate the country's attention on public services and public spending, Labour may well still stand a fighting chance of a hung parliament at next year's general election.

It's a suggestion, a prediction, that James and I have long stood by. Bring on 6 May!

UPDATE: Before I'm denounced by Tory trolls "below the line" as a "Labour spin doctor", let me apologise for failing to acknowledge above that there is, in fact, another reputable poll out today -- by YouGov for the Sun -- which tells a somewhat different story. The YouGov survey shows the Tories have reopened a 10-point lead over Labour -- which is, of course, the margin they need to maintain in order to win an overall majority next month.

So is the ICM poll just a "rogue", as some Tory sympathisers have suggested? Who knows? Don't forget: as a wise man once said, rogue polls tend to be polls you don't like. And even the YouGov survey shows an increase in the Labour share (from 29 to 31 per cent). So I still think there's reason for Brown, and Labour supporters, to be cheerful this morning.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

Her £1bn deal with the DUP could make it even harder to push through cuts in the rest of the UK.

Going, going, gone...sold to the dark-haired woman from Enniskillen! Theresa May has signed a two-year deal with Arlene Foster, the DUP's leader, to keep her in office. The price? A cool £1bn and the extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland.

The deal will have reverberations both across the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland specifically. To take the latter first – the amount spent in Northern Ireland in 2016/17 was just under £10bn. A five point increase in spending on health, education and roads is a fairly large feather in anyone's cap.

It transforms the picture as far as the fraught negotiations over restoring power-sharing goes. It increases the pressure on Sinn Féin to restore power-sharing so they can help decide exactly where the money goes. And if there's another election, it means that Arlene Foster goes into it not as the woman who oversaw the wasteful RHI scheme (a renewable energy programme that because of its poor drafting saw farmers paid to heat empty rooms) but as the negotiator who bagged an extra £1bn for Northern Ireland. 

Across the United Kingdom, the optics are less good for the (nominal) senior partner to the deal.

"May buys DUP support with £1 billion 'bung" is the Times"£1bn for DUP is 'just the start" is the Telegraph's splash, and their Scottish edition is worse: "Fury at 'grubby' deal with DUP". With friends like this, who needs the Guardian? (They've gone for "May hands £1bn bonanza to DUP to cling on at No 10" as their splash, FYI.) 

Not to be outdone, the Mirror opts for "May's £1bn bribe to crackpots" while the Scotsman goes for "£100 million per vote: The price of power".  Rounding off the set, the Evening Standard has mocked Foster up as Dr Evil and Theresa May as Mini-Me on its front page. The headline? "I demand the sum of....one billion pounds!"   

Of course, in terms of what the government spends, £1bn is much ado about nothing. (To put it in perspective, the total budget across the UK is £770bn or thereabouts, debt interest around £40bn, the deficit close to £76bn).

But only a few weeks ago Theresa May was telling a nurse that the reason she couldn't get a pay rise is that there is "no magic money tree". Now that magic money tree is growing freely in Northern Ireland. The Conservatives have been struggling to get further cuts through as it is – just look at the row over tax credits, or the anger at school cuts in the election – but now any further cuts in England, Scotland and Wales will rub up against the inevitable comeback not only from the opposition parties but the voters: "But you've got money to spend in Northern Ireland!"

(That £1bn is relatively small probably makes matters worse – an outlay per DUP MP that you might expect a world-class football club to spend on a quality player. It's tangible, rather like that £350m for the NHS. £30bn? That's just money.)

For Labour, who have spent the last seven years arguing, with varying degrees of effectiveness that austerity is a choice, it's as close to an open goal as you can imagine. Theresa May's new government is now stable – but it's an open question as to how long it will take her party to feel strong again.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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