David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband stand together as Prince Charles launches a new youth campaign at Buckingham Palace on November 21, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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In the era of hung politics, all three main parties are preparing for a leadership contest

With the general election result so uncertain, leadership contenders in the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems are making themselves known.

In 13 months’ time, at least one and possibly two of the three main parties will be preparing to hold leadership contests. The days when a leader could survive election defeat, as Harold Wilson did in 1970 and Neil Kinnock did in 1987, are gone. In this populist age, rejection by the voters is terminal.

But such is the uncertainty surrounding the general election result, with all three parties enjoying a plausible hope of being in government after 2015, that no one can be sure where the axe will fall. While preparing for victory, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have also been forced to start preparing for defeat.

It is among the Tories, reflecting Labour’s arithmetical advantage, that the conversation is liveliest. The recent briefing battle between Boris Johnson and George Osborne revealed the extent to which the party is preoccupied with the question of who will succeed David Cameron. Osborne, whose personal poll ratings are rising in line with the economy (he is now the most popular Conservative occupant of the Treasury since 1980), enjoys a loyal parliamentary following, a network of influential media supporters and a gifted staff that includes the former Policy Exchange director Neil O’Brien. The long-held assumption that his fortunes are bound to those of Cameron has been discarded. With greater subtlety than Johnson and Osborne, Theresa May is also refining her pitch for a post-election contest.

One common grumble among Labour and Conservative MPs is that it is Nick Clegg, owing to the likelihood of another hung parliament, who has the best chance of being in office after 2015. But that has not stopped his Liberal Democrat colleagues positioning themselves to succeed him. As well as the party president, Tim Farron, and the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, this group now includes Danny Alexander. Indeed, I am told by sources that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury’s team was behind a recent story suggesting that Clegg’s position could be in danger if the party is wiped out in the European elections. “He looks like a faithful paladin of Clegg but he’s ambitious,” one says.

With Alexander now “certain”, in the words of one Lib Dem, to supplant Vince Cable as the party’s representative in the general election chancellors’ TV debate, he is well placed to run as the “continuity candidate” (assuming that he retains his seat in Scotland). If Alexander does stand, he will likely be challenged from the left by Farron and from the right by Jeremy Browne, whose new book, Race Plan, is a cri de coeur for free-market liberalism.

Until recently, talk of the possibility of a post-2015 leadership election was rare among Labour MPs. Compared to the Tories and the Lib Dems, the party remains a model of unity. Yet, as the polls have narrowed, the subject has been broached with increasing frequency.

One figure regarded as almost certain to stand in any contest is Andy Burnham. The shadow health secretary finished fourth in 2010 but has since established himself as the darling of party activists with his unrelenting defence of the NHS against Tory attacks. His recent criticism of HS2 in an interview with the New Statesman was viewed by Miliband’s allies as another attempt to differentiate himself from the leadership after his previous calls for zero-hours contracts to be banned and for billions in health funding to be transferred to local councils (a proposal that was vetoed by Miliband).

Burnham suffers from one significant disadvantage: he is a man. It is regarded as a point of shame among Labour MPs that they, unlike the Tories, have never had a female leader. The more the party derides David Cameron’s “woman problem”, the greater the need becomes to redress this omission. For this reason, Yvette Cooper is regarded as the favourite. But Cooper (who won the last ever shadow cabinet election) could face a formidable challenger from another man, Chuka Umunna, the ambitious shadow business secretary, whose election would grant Labour the distinction of having the first black or mixed-race leader. Either way, a Labour MP predicts: “The next leader of the party will not be a white man.”

One party leader who might be thought to be safe in his job is Nigel Farage. Ukip is on course to finish first or second in the European Parliament elections in late May and to post its best ever general election result in 2015. However, because of Farage’s pledge to resign if the party fails to win any MPs (one that wiser heads are urging him to retract), even Ukip is not immune from the current fashion for leadership speculation. Having only recently taken up his post as the party’s director of communications, the former Daily Express columnist Patrick O’Flynn is already being tipped to become Farage’s successor.

By this stage of the parliamentary cycle it is usually clear which party is destined for victory. In 2004, resigned to defeat against Tony Blair, Michael Howard was able to begin grooming David Cameron to succeed him. In 2009, the anticipated departure of Gordon Brown allowed Labour’s future leadership candidates ample time to prepare their manifestos. Today’s would-be contenders enjoy no such certainty. They must simultaneously prepare for government and for opposition. They must court the favour of the leader who will determine their fate in the former and the favour of the activists who will determine their fate in the latter. In this new era of hung politics, the room for error has never been greater.

Rafael Behr is away

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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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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