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.

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

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