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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.