Political sketch: Chancellor runs out of places to hide

When the Speaker took the muzzle off Ed Balls, George was left eating his own words.

There were times during the Chancellor's Autumn Statement when Dave looked as if he had no idea what George was going on about and there were times when George didn't seem so sure either.

The end of the world as we know came in a speech that you could see came through teeth so gritted that ice-bound drivers would have been envious. It was all meant to be so different.

Just 12 months ago George promised that although we might have to dive into the brown stuff and swim a few lengths, we would be out of the ordure with a cup of tea and a biscuit by 2015, ready to reward him with sacks full of votes at the general election. Earlier today he revealed he had only been joking.

The day started well enough for the Chancellor but it was clearly a sign of things to come that it was deemed safer to drive the 150 yards to the House of Commons from the Treasury than face the more dangerous chance of bumping into a voter.

As he took his seat he was joined, with some apparent reluctance, by the other three members of what we now know is called the "quad", who apparently bear most responsibility for our present state of affairs.

Most embarrassed appeared to be the PM closely followed by his Deputy Nick, who usually manages to look disconnected from any of these occasions. Jammed between Nick and Dave, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and bruiser-in-training Danny Alexander, who still looks as if he has taken the wrong turning on a school trip.

Having leaked every bit of less than disastrous news from the Statement over the past week, the Chancellor knew he had run out of places to hide. When he moved into Number 11 he had been happy to take praise for establishing the Office of Budget Responsibility to give independent views on Government policies. These were the ones who would enhance his reputation by confirming Plan A was not only the right one, but also that it was on course. But that was before he decided he had to build an extension on to it.

And so it was the OBR which did for him by confirming borrowing would be massively up -- and growth substantially down.

His own side, seeing their own prospects of re-election receding, took the view that if they shouted loud enough they could drown out the bad news. This encouraged Labour to turn up the volume even further by repeating it.

As the Chancellor's voice moved inexorably up the Richter scale his body slumped even further onto the Despatch Box and the other members of the quad adopted the embarrassed look of those on the bus when a drunk gets on.

They seemed particularly pained when George, having already warned that the good times had been out on hold, added to the general misery by announcing he was extending the retirement age to 67 from 2026, which had more than a few MPs reaching for their calculators.

And on the eve of the biggest public sector strike in years he decided to follow up his appeal to them to reconsider with the announcement that, following their present two year pay freeze, he would be restricting future pay rises to 1 per cent. At least that cheered up his side.

As George finally subsided into his seat, the Speaker took the muzzle off Ed Balls and let him at his opponent. Ed took some pleasure in sticking George's words of a year ago up where they would cause most hurt. "Britain needs a new Chancellor or a new plan", said Ed, happy to point out that the Government will now borrow billions more than Labour had planned.

Earlier in the day the opinion polls showed that despite the dire news, Labour's lead over the Tories is still just 2 per cent, and that a large slice of the public continue to blame Labour for our present predicament.

Just one certainty. All MPs will be employed until 2015.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

Getty
Show Hide image

How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

0800 7318496