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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.