Welcome to the era of no overall control

The leaders’ debates energised what were, in truth, disappointing campaigns for all three main parti

It's all over: the festival of pledges, pratfalls, fumbles and fudges that constitutes a modern British election campaign. And the result is . . . great confusion. Parliament's hung, everyone's lost and the only likely bet is another election not too far away. We are now in possession of the Snark of British politics - a first-past-the-post election with a muddy, proportional representation-type result.

Asked on the BBC at 5am on Friday 7 May who was going to be running the country, the Children's Secretary, Ed Balls, replied that he didn't know for sure, as he had been out of mobile contact for an hour. And that's how it felt as the graphics registered unsatisfactory gains for the Tories, a savage deflation of the Lib Dem soufflé and Labour hanging on in there, despite losing the mandate of a majority.

There were cameos to savour along the way: the former home secretary Jacqui Smith's face, staring at the defeat she knew was coming but still flinching at the blow when it landed; and Gisela Stuart, holding off the Tory advance in Edgbaston. This was a reminder that sometimes - just sometimes - pleasant character and consistent views can triumph over the party machines.

And there was the news that many Friends of Cameron hadn't made it - so, no Annunziata Rees-Mogg and no Notting Hill queen Joanne Cash in the next parliament. Meanwhile, many Tories were just as dismayed to see Zac Goldsmith crowned in Richmond as some in New Labour were to see Balls survive his boundary change.

At the end of it all, we were left watching Gordon Brown re-entering Downing Street and a lot of aerial shots of cars hurtling around with very tired men in the back seats. But we were still no closer to knowing who would govern Britain.

Loose briefs

How did it happen? The Tories entered the campaign having endured two very ropey months. They lost momentum and clarity of message, which was never recovered. A key strategist admitted to me in the early hours of 7 May that there were faults in the "ground war" for seats: "Candidates [were] wandering around loosely briefed and some without even the blue rosette. [There was] a lot of confusion out there."

But what the party was saying was also shrouded in mystery. What exactly was the Conservative offer? It depended whom you asked. Most significantly, David Cameron had what one of his closest aides concedes was a "wandering" message on the economy. A party which had declared that slashing the deficit was a priority softened the edges of its message. The married person's tax allowance, which Cameron had once intended to put at the centre of his pitch for power, was in tatters, reduced from an ambitious attempt to mend "broken Britain" to a forlorn symbol of good intentions.

The "big society", Cameron's big idea, had great potential, but its contours were so vaguely defined that it sounded like awfully hard work on top of our day jobs and the tiresome business of everyday life. At the Battersea manifesto launch, the mood was hopeful but highly nervous. The brief from the top was firm: "No counter-intuitive change messages." In other words, don't lose the core vote to Ukip by talking about saving the planet or being nice to delinquents.

The problem for Cameron was that this was a campaign sculpted around his per­sonality and appeal - and it still didn't put him straight into Downing Street. (And this party, which loves a grudge, will store up that resentment.) The strain on the Tory leader has been immense. He has put on weight in the past few weeks, bemoaning the diet of "sandwiches, coffee and angst" on the road.

The only thrill of the early part of the campaign was the Conservative ploy of doubling back (again) on the priority of deficit reduction - and coming out against the government's planned National Insurance rise. In a battle fought on big ideas, this would have been a detail, but with little else to go on, Labour was boxed in to the "tax on jobs" corner - much to the frustration of that doughty campaigner, John Prescott. He told me of his concerns that the famed New Labour rebuttal machine had gone rusty. "It should have immediately been parried as an attack on health and schools spending. We let them define us far too easily."

The press relied heavily on the leaders' wives for a bit of colour in a campaign painted in shades of grey. The slicker edge of the Tory marketing machine brought us "Web Sam Cameron", showcasing a glowing Sam in a mid-market smock, apparently talking to her open fridge about Dave's
reliability. "He's never let me down." Nice to know.

Poor Sarah Brown tweeted about her daffodils like a Desperate Housewife. Trussed up in high-street attire, she had the tolerant but weary look of a woman doing what she has to do while sensing that disaster loomed. As for Miriam González Durántez, she appeared as a fetching St John the Baptist for her husband, Nick Clegg. Dazzling but unaffected, she won the hearts of the nation's working women by making it clear that she would rather be doing the day job than stomping around key marginals.

None of this mattered, however, once the debates crackled into life. "As of tomorrow," a senior Labour strategist said to me at the time, "nothing you've written earlier will matter." He was right. The refreshing thing about the Cleggster's breakthrough moment was that it was so unexpected that we all thought we had discovered it for ourselves.

It turned out that there was unusual accord. Brown's hug, "I agree with Nick," was intended to open a door to coalition. In the event, it only confirmed Clegg's status as primus inter pares in the widescreen war. His open countenance, informality and conspiratorial tone with the viewers were magnificent. Suddenly, we saw what we had been missing in Westminster's boy next door.

As he walked off the stage, I watched Dave give the Lib Dem leader a congratulatory thump on the back that looked rather more vicious than benign. The rise of Clegg seems especially painful to a Tory leader who has presented himself as the generational change Britain needs. From now on, parents with political ambitions for their offspring will be applying to Clegg's alma mater, Westminster, rather than to Eton.

Would the bubble burst? At Conservative Central Office, formerly bright faces were stricken. I asked one of Cameron's intimates what they would do if their man didn't make it into No 10. "None of us will still be here," he said. "And you'll be calling Liam Fox for quotes on when he's going to run."

That sense of fragility, of living on borrowed time, never left the Tories. But before we got to round three of the debates, a ghastly fate would strike Labour and Brown. Like the fallen heroes of Greek tragedy, he would be the author of his own misfortune.

The b-word

How did a prime minister surrounded by seasoned advisers get it so wrong? The encounter with Gillian Duffy was somewhere between The Wire and The Thick of It - with a touch of Frank Spencer thrown in. Brown's off-the-cuff diagnosis of her as a "bigoted woman" showed that Labour's connection to its core vote had been shattered. After all, Duffy had merely asked where eastern European migrants were "flocking from". Besides the obvious retort, we know what she meant, and the government has never found a straight answer.

The b-word belied Brown's vaunted intention to meet "real people". That said, we all know how easy it is to be caught out by a phone line left open, or a "reply to all" icon clicked on in error. The trouble is, it just would happen to Gordon, wouldn't it? As he put his head in his hands when the tape was played back to him during a radio interview, disdain mingled with sneaking sympathy.

Labour subsequently announced that its vote was "holding up", as if it were a dodgy pair of suspenders. The damage went deeper, however, and the prospect of Brown remaining Prime Minister, even if the coalition arithmetic was favourable to Labour, went down the drain.

The following night, on Thursday 29 April, when the three musketeers crossed swords on television for the last time, we saw Clegg's magic begin to fade, and a sleek, urgent Cameron admit that few people could understand exactly what his "big society" was about (which he somehow presented as a measure of its integrity, rather than an indication that it was a vague muddle of wishes and instincts). Brown, meanwhile, projected his best asset: avid seriousness.

Yet, his had been a weak campaign, not enhanced by his character and lacklustre projection. How must Brown's persistent tormentor Charles Clarke feel at being ousted in Norwich South while the leader clings on? I think we can guess. Out on the stump, Brown seemed grumpy, exhausted and tense from the start, overcompensating with the fixed grin of a man hiding vast deposits of despair and ill-feeling.

In the final week of the campaign, I went to Eltham in south London with Prescott, who was grumbling about Labour's poor preparation and its failure to launch a dry run of the campaign during the European elections in June 2009.

Peter Mandelson texted to congratulate Prezza on racking up 5,000 miles on the campaign trail. As he did so, Ed Balls was tantalising NS readers with the prospect of co-operation with the Lib Dems in the event of a hung parliament, while Peter Hain embraced it outright. Prescott's fury was as loud and immense as the man himself: "What's this piddling about with the electorate?"

In the end, there wasn't a lot of piddling about; just a panicked retreat, as Clegg candidly put it, to what people already knew. In that regard, Britain is a conservative nation. But this election has also shown that it is not an overwhelmingly Conservative one.

The Prime Minister's statement outside No 10 on 7 May was pure Robo-Gordon: you can deny him a majority and fail to give him a mandate as Labour leader, but he won't give up. One thing was for sure: he would have to be hosed out of Downing Street.

Later, Cameron emerged with a lengthy tract offering something called "confidence and supply" to the Liberal Democrats. He would agree to remove some of the more controversial Tory policies in return for Clegg supplying support. Lib Dems may consider this the equivalent of the ham-and-eggs joint venture proposed by the chicken to the pig. Clegg at least started by giving the impression he would do anything to avoid moving in with him. The chemistry is all wrong.

“We'll end up messing around with that Liberal bloke who's almost a Tory," Prescott prophesied. And it turns out he may have been right. Welcome to the era of no overall control - of almost everything.

Anne McElvoy is political columnist of the London Evening Standard and a regular presenter of "Night Waves" on Radio 3.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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