Dark ages: Nick Clegg delivers his speech on the last day of the Lib Dem Party Conference. Photo: Getty
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Leader: British politics is now a war of the weak

The overall impression is of an age of big problems, small ideas and diminished political leaders.

Perhaps at no point since 1974 have both main political parties approached a general election in such a state of weakness. As much as the Conservatives draw comfort from Ed Miliband’s poor leadership ratings, the conspiratorial mutterings about his leadership and his disappointing conference speech in Manchester (an exercise in brinkmanship that did not come off), they are no closer to becoming again the natural party of government.

The main effect of the party conference season has been to confirm that the 2015 election will amount to a war of the weak. Even before Ed Miliband had forgotten to mention the Budget deficit in his speech, polls suggested that Labour had done far too little to assuage anxieties about its economic competence. While David Cameron gave an astute and burnished speech to end his conference on a high – significantly, he read it from a lectern, unlike Mr Miliband, who spoke broadly from memory – the Conservatives are turning right in an attempt to bolster their core vote and head off the threat from Ukip. Polls have repeatedly shown that as much as 40 per cent of the electorate would never consider voting Tory.

As for the Liberal Democrats, whose conference finished in Glasgow on 8 October, Nick Clegg’s party’s identity crisis remains unresolved. Its poll ratings – as low as 6 per cent now – show no sign of an upswing. “Being in the centre could mean being seen as mainstream and common-sense,” the Labour pollster James Morris wrote in a widely noticed blog on newstatesman.com. “For the Lib Dems, it means they are seen as a pointless mush.” Harsh, perhaps, but the polls would suggest that many agree with him.

The overall impression is of an age of big problems, small ideas and diminished political leaders.

However, it is possible to detect an emerging consensus on the need for greater infrastructure investment and housebuilding; further devolution, to both Scotland and the English regions; and for a higher minimum wage to reduce what the state spends on subsidising low pay. But there is consensus of a less welcome kind: that further austerity could be confined to aspects of society unpopular in the parties.

In truth, the next government will not be able to remove the deficit merely by increasing taxes on the wealthiest, or by cutting benefits further for the poor and not raising taxes. What is required, above all else, is clear-headed honesty about the deficit, pragmatism and a national plan for reconstruction and renewal. Alas, none of the parties is offering any such thing.

One of the dominant themes of 2014 has been the continued fracturing of our politics and the weakness of the British state. It was evident in Ukip becoming the first party from outside the Labour-Tory duopoly to win a national election since 1910. It was evident, too, in the energising independence campaign in Scotland and the remarkable surge in Scottish National Party membership, which has quadrupled to 100,000 since 18 September.

British politics today is not about two, three or even four parties: add in the Greens, now tying with the Lib Dems in many polls, and Plaid Cymru in Wales, and the 2015 election will be as far from a two-party choice as is possible, with different dynamics in most seats. The psepho­logists’ idea of a “uniform swing” has never seemed more archaic.

Market capitalism desires choice in all walks of life, and now belatedly we have it in our politics, too. The centre cannot hold. The nation state is fragmenting. The snag is that we have a Westminster electoral system designed for the two-party age. Which could mean that an “alliance of the defeated” – a Labour Party that finished second in the popular vote and a Liberal Democrat party fourth – is the only viable coalition after 2015. The alternative is a minority government that might last as long as the Wilson government that was formed in March 1974 (a second general election in October that year resulted in a three-seat majority for Labour).

Yet would such a weakened alliance be capable of delivering the wide-ranging economic, social and constitutional reform that the United Kingdom urgently requires? 

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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