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2010 — the year in review

From another botched Labour coup to the election of a coalition government, this political year has been full of interest.

It was the year that defied conventional wisdom. From the beginning of the long election campaign a Conservative victory seemed there for the taking, with most commentators and pollsters still predicting a Tory majority even as the country went to the polls. The same figures were certain that David Miliband would triumph in Labour's first leadership election since 1994. But in both cases the voters decided otherwise. As the establishment reacted with dismay to the first hung parliament since 1974 and to Ed Miliband's election as Labour leader, one was reminded of Bertolt Brecht's gibe about the need to elect a new people.

The year began with another outburst of existential angst over Gordon Brown's leadership. The third and final coup attempt came in January, when Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon moved to rid Labour of the most unpopular prime minister since polling began. But fear of a prolonged civil war, the absence of a Heseltine-type challenger, and Hoon and Hewitt's lack of credibility made Labour pull back from regicide. Peter Mandelson, who acted as the then PM's life-support machine, has since estimated that Brown's continued leadership cost Labour 20-30 seats at the general election and, come June, the party looked admiringly on the ruthless efficiency with which Australia's Labor replaced Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard.

Thanks to a surprisingly inept start to their campaign, the Tories failed to capitalise on Labour's woes. The poster of an airbrushed David Cameron, bearing the legend "I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS", became the most parodied image of the election, ridiculed in scores of spoofs. The poster, like the revelation that Cameron's car followed him with his briefcase as he cycled in to work at Westminster, was a gift to those eager to portray him as vain and narcissistic.

Meanwhile, following polling evidence that George Osborne's "age of austerity" was scaring swing voters away, Cameron softened the party's line on the deficit and suggested that in-year cuts would not be "particularly extensive". His rhetorical U-turn muddled the Conservatives' economic message and suggested that they shared doubts over early spending cuts. Worse was to come as Cameron appeared unsure of his party's tax policy for married couples ("I messed up," he later conceded) and the former deputy party chairman Michael Ashcroft's non-domicile tax status was finally exposed. By the end of February, the Tories were just 2 points ahead of Brown's party, despite having led Labour by 26 points in May 2008.

Cameron's biggest strategic error was to agree to the televised leaders' debates, which transformed Nick Clegg from the little-known leader of the Liberal Democrats into the head of a revolt against the Labour-Tory duopoly. Having shared top billing with the revered Vince Cable at the start of the campaign, Clegg finally emerged as a national figure in his own right and Cable's photo was quietly dropped from the party's home page. It was during that strangely serene weekend following the first debate, when the Icelandic volcano grounded all UK flights, that the Liberal Democrats topped the opinion polls for the first time in their history. Time itself seemed out of joint.

Campaign Charlies

The Lib Dem surge would not last but it forced the Tories to fight a war on two fronts. Moreover, the debates institutionalised three-party politics, making hung parliaments more likely in the future. But "Cleggmania" also cost the Lib Dems, as activists hubristically campaigned in unwinnable seats, neglecting key marginals. Ultimately the party won just 57 seats, five fewer than in 2005.

Meanwhile, conflict was brewing between Cameron's chief of strategy, Steve Hilton, and his director of communications, Andy Coulson. Hilton, heavily influenced by a stint in California, was determined to run a hopeful, Obama-style campaign with the "big society" at its heart. By contrast, Coulson, a former tabloid editor, favoured a fierce and aggressive campaign that relentlessly targeted Brown's record. The result was increasingly incoherent. The "big society" failed to engage Cameron's own party, let alone the public. One Tory backbencher memorably described it as "complete crap", while others referred to it more succinctly as "BS". Oscar Wilde once declared that the problem with socialism "is that it takes up too many spare evenings". Voters working ever longer hours were unimpressed by the suggestion that they should set up their own schools and run local services.

If the Tories' campaign was incoherent, then Labour's was frequently risible. The appearance of an Elvis impersonator at one event and the much-spoofed poster depicting Cameron as the TV detective Gene Hunt are only the most memorable examples. The nadir came on a visit to Lancashire when Brown was overheard describing a Rochdale pensioner, Gillian Duffy, as a "bigoted woman". But despite the media furore over "Bigotgate", the incident had no discernible impact on support for Labour. Polls showed that freshly unpredictable voters even sympathised with the PM.

It was only two days before the election that the Labour leader finally found his voice, in a remarkable speech to Citizens UK. As Brown thundered with the passion of an Old Testament prophet, an excited Mandelson said: "That's what I've been telling him to do all along!" In the event, even though Labour won just 29 per cent of the vote - its second-worst vote share since 1918 - the overall result was not the 1983-style wipeout that some had feared. The party ended up with 258 seats, more than it won in 1983 and 1987, and significantly more than the Tories won in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“David Cameron will be Prime Minister by teatime Friday," blogged the Daily Telegraph's Benedict Brogan confidently, several days before the election. In the event, the election delivered a hung parliament for the first time in a generation and the country entered a power vacuum for five days as the Liberal Democrats played the two main parties off against each other. For several days, the prospect of a "rainbow alliance" between Labour, the Lib Dems and minority parties was touted as a serious possibility, though the former Labour home secretary David Blunkett summed up the doubts of many when he warned against a "coalition of the defeated".

Cameron's "big, open and comprehensive offer" to the Lib Dems was a game-changer, though intense secrecy continued to surround the talks. Brown's surprise resignation on 10 May prompted many newspapers to accuse him of staging a "coup", a last-ditch attempt to keep Labour in power. They were proved wrong. At 8.45pm the very next day, Cameron announced that he and Clegg would together form a government.

The formation of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took most by surprise, but the signs had been there all along. Since his election as Lib Dem leader, Clegg had moved the party steadily rightwards and promoted those from the free-market, Orange Book faction. It was he, not Cameron, who first spoke in 2009 of the need for "savage cuts". Moreover, the onus was on the Lib Dems, as the party of electoral reform, to prove that coalition government could work. We now know that they had little intention of sticking to their pledge to delay spending cuts until 2011. Even in their negotiations with Labour, as papers leaked to the New Statesman revealed, the Lib Dems were calling for "further and faster action on the deficit", including "some in-year cuts".

While many column inches have been devoted to finding the "cracks in the coalition", it has become increasingly obvious that this is no marriage of convenience. The Tories may have run election broadcasts against the "Hung Parliament Party" but Cameron seems happier sharing power than he would be with an all-Conservative government. The coalition allowed him to marginalise the right of his party and affirm his liberal conservatism.

The benefits for the Lib Dems are harder to discern. The loss of support for them has been startling, some polls putting approval for the party as low as 9 per cent, and one in five Lib Dem voters switching to Labour. Never again will the electorate fall for Clegg's holier-than-thou act. The party that warned of a Tory VAT "bombshell" during the election ended up joining the assault. The party that pledged, at the very least, to vote against higher tuition fees, has voted to triple them. Attracting the anger of student protesters is nothing new for the Tories, but for the Lib Dems - hitherto the party of protest, supporting free education and civil liberties and opposing the war in Iraq - it is a new and disconcerting experience.

Brothers grim

Away from the coalition, attention turned to Labour's leadership contest, where David Mili­band's coronation appeared a formality. With the full force of the New Labour machine behind him, he led from the front. He had more endorsements from the party establishment and larger donations, although his brother, Ed Miliband, won the support of the "big three" trade unions: Unite, Unison and the GMB.

In the event, it proved to be the tightest Labour election since Denis Healey defeated Tony Benn for the deputy leadership in 1981. Only in the 24 hours before the result did Ed Miliband - a one-time 33-1 outsider - become the bookies' favourite. Peter Hain, a leading ally of the younger Miliband, later reflected: "It came from nowhere. He didn't have any infrastructure or resources in place at the start."

As the brothers entered the specially convened leadership conference on a late September afternoon in Manchester, David smiled winningly and waved to the crowd as Ed sat tensely, biting his lip. It meant nothing: the elder Miliband gained the most votes in every round except the last, and eventually lost to his brother by just 1.3 per cent.

Speculation about David's next move dominated the Labour conference proper, as he delivered one of his finest speeches to date. But an unguarded aside on the Iraq war to Harriet Harman ("You voted for it. Why are you clapping?") during his brother's victory speech showed why he could no longer remain in front-line politics. Tensions between the rival camps remain unresolved, notably over Ed's claim to have opposed the war. As for the brothers, one Labour peer tells us that they are no longer on speaking terms.

One family drama soon replaced another as attention turned to Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, husband and wife. Although the couple were considered front-runners for the shadow chancellorship, the new leader appointed Alan Johnson. Given the uneasy relationship between Balls and Miliband, perhaps the decision was not surprising. "It's just like being back at the Treasury," Miliband had quipped at the NS Labour leadership hustings in June, after a verbose response from Balls. "Tell us the answer then, Ed, like you always do," Balls shot back.

It's often forgotten that Miliband has an astute grasp of economics, having taught the subject at Harvard during his sabbatical in 2003-2004. Appointing Johnson signalled that, unlike Tony Blair, he was unwilling to subcontract economic policy to his shadow chancellor. Yet Johnson has been no puppet, using Miliband's paternity leave to reaffirm his opposition to a graduate tax (before backtracking in December) and a permanent 50p top rate of income tax.

Labour has struggled to articulate a convincing alternative to the coalition's cuts as George Osborne, hitherto regarded as a liability, has emerged as a dominant figure. As recently as March, his unpopularity was such that Cameron insisted there was no pact between the pair and he could sack Osborne if he wanted to. The then shadow chancellor was left out of the "famous five" election squad - Cameron, Kenneth Clarke, Michael Gove, William Hague and Jeremy Hunt - after reportedly receiving low ratings in confidential Conservative polls.

Worse than Thatcher

Since the election, however, the Chancellor has frequently led from the front as the emperor-like Cameron has remained above the fray. Osborne's emergency Budget and Spending Review defined this year, and their effects will define the next. The cuts will reduce spending from 47.3 per cent of GDP in 2010-2011 to 39.8 per cent in 2015-2016 - equivalent to reductions made by Margaret Thatcher between 1979 and 1990. Osborne is determined to use his economic muscle to construct a Tory majority between now and the next general election. The recently announced cap on benefits was not just a populist measure but an act of supreme electoral engineering. The Tories believe that the flight of poor, mainly Labour-voting families from inner London will allow previously unwinnable seats to fall their way.

Conventional wisdom suggests the coalition should prepare for extreme unpopularity as Osborne's £81bn cuts kick in. The Climate Change Secretary, Chris Huhne, has privately predicted that support for his party will fall to 5 per cent and support for the Tories to 25 per cent. International experience suggests that austerity does not always result in electoral punishment, however. The three governments that executed the largest expenditure-based deficit reductions in modern times - Ireland in 1987, Canada in 1994 and Sweden in 1995 - were all re-elected. In addition, the next election will be fought under redrawn constituency boundaries that will strip Labour of about 25 seats.

Should the economy have returned to full health by 2015, Osborne will be in a position to hand out pre-poll sweeteners and to claim, as John Major once did: "It hurt but it worked." After a year in which the script was repeatedly torn up, there is every possibility that the same thing will happen again.

Samira Shackle and George Eaton write for the New Statesman blog The Staggers.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

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Good riddance to Boris – but the Tory party still needs to find a unifying leader

With Boris gone, Theresa May and Michael Gove are serious contenders for the crown.

UPDATE:  From the moment Michael Gove decided to run for the Conservative leadership Boris Johnsons days were numbered. This is particularly true because of the typically unequivocal comment that Gove made about Johnsons leadership capabilities or lack of them in his announcement. For Johnson has led a remarkably charmed life in both politics and journalism in recent years. Reality has finally caught up with him. It was always going to be the case that if Gove stood many who had pledged their allegiance to Johnson would, because of this lack of leadership qualities, think again. The inevitable has now happened, and Johnson, for once, has accepted reality.

Michael Gove appears, at the eleventh hour, to have learned something about Boris Johnson that anyone who has worked with him either in journalism or politics could have told him years ago: that Johnson is entirely unreliable. The leaked email in which Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, warned him of the assurances he needed to get from Johnson before pledging himself as the key supporter in his campaign turns out to have been the writing on the wall for a clear run for Johnson. Word was swirling round Westminster after the email was leaked that Johnson appeared to have offered the same senior cabinet post – believed to have been the Treasury – to more than one person in return for support. Perhaps this was down to incompetence rather than dishonesty. Gove has made his own judgement, and it is, for an intelligent and serious man, an inevitable one.

Many Brexiteers, who feel that someone who shared their view should end up leading the Tory party, will be delighted by Gove’s decision. There was deep unease among many of them about the idea of a showman rather than a statesman inevitably ending up in Downing Street. What Gove will need to do now is to persuade colleagues who had gone behind Johnson because they did not want Theresa May to shift behind him. Some of Johnson’s supporters caused enormous surprise by their decision – such as Sir Nicholas Soames, who spent the referendum campaign denouncing Johnson on his Twitter feed – and they are not natural bedfellows of his. One Tory MP told me before Gove’s decision to stand that a group of “sensible” Tories had accepted the inevitability of a Johnson victory and had decided to get around him to try to keep him on the straight and narrow. The view that Johnson is unstoppable has now been tested, and those who had made the leap to support him may now well leap back.

Following Theresa May’s very assured launch of her campaign, which radiated statesmanship and sincerity, the Brexiteers need to ask themselves what sort of candidate is going to provide the best challenge to her, for she is clearly formidable. Given the choice between a volatile buffoon taking her on or someone who is more level-headed and serious doing so, the latter must inevitably be the best option. Johnson never looked like a unifying figure, and certainly not one it was easy for rational people to imagine leading the country in an international context.

Gove’s decision not to support Johnson does not merely withdraw his personal support. It will withdraw the support of many who were prepared, reluctantly, to follow his lead and join the Johnson campaign. It has a parallel in history, which was William Hague’s decision to run on his own account instead of supporting Michael Howard in the 1997 contest after the party’s annihilation by Tony Blair. Hague won, and turned out to be a hapless leader. Gove is made of heavier metal and the party is in less perilous circumstances, so the outcome for him, should he win, ought to be better.

In the past few days a considerable portion of the Tory party has taken leave of its senses. In such a condition, envisaging Johnson as its leader was easy. Sanity and calm are now prevailing. The Brexiteers in the party – or at least that group of them resolute that they cannot have a Remainer as leader can now reflect on whether they want an act or a politician to become prime minister. At least, thanks to Mr Gove, they now have a choice.

The Johnson phenomenon

Once upon a time, often within hours of a prime minister resigning, a “magic circle” of Tory grandees would decide after “soundings” whom to send to Buckingham Palace to kiss hands as the new man. Now, the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers has sought to do what it can to emulate the process, fast-tracking the election of David Cameron’s successor so that he or she is in place by 9 September, and ignoring calls for a period of wider reflection on whom the party needs to take it forward through the uncharted waters of negotiating an exit with the European Union. Longer consideration may have been helpful, given that the party is choosing not merely its leader, but the next prime minister.

It soon appeared the main fight would be between Boris Johnson and Theresa May. Jeremy Hunt proposed himself as a “second referendum” candidate, even though the Tory party in particular wants another plebiscite about as much as it would like to put its collective head in a mincer. There was talk of two lesser cabinet ministers, Stephen Crabb and Sajid Javid, presenting a “joint bid”, even though such a concept is unknown to the Conservative constitution; and others were floating around the margins. The tumult reflects the hysterical state of mind in the party: no one in Cameron’s inner circle expected the British public to disobey orders, including, one starts to imagine, Johnson. It is only the preposterous events in the Labour Party that have stopped the Tories from seeming to be completely out of control.

It has become Tory party lore that the favourite never wins, on the precept that he who wields the knife never ends up wearing the crown. Many of the Tory MPs believed nothing could prevent their colleagues voting in sufficient numbers to put Johnson in the second and final round of the contest, the one in which all paid-up members may vote. And if he got there, they felt, the outcome was even less in doubt: he would win.

Predicting this will happen and wanting it to happen are, of course, not the same thing. A distressed Tory MP told me he expected Labour sympathisers to join his party to vote for Johnson, rather as mischievous Tories joined Labour to elect Jeremy Corbyn. The rules, however, forbid such last-minute purchases of a vote: yet the sentiment shows what an equally substantial group of Tory MPs thought of Johnson’s capabilities, and explains why the anyone-but-Boris movement sprang into action the instant Cameron ran up the white flag. They knew that, for all Johnson’s failings, and there are many, he has the entertainer’s knack of making people love him. Sadly – and this is the part his adoring public doesn’t see – things can be very different when he enters his dressing room and starts to take off the make-up. As Sir Alan Duncan said forthrightly last weekend, there is the small matter of Johnson lacking the gravitas and experience to be a credible prime minister, something MPs should have the wit to take into account even if the party in the country at large does not.

The Johnson phenomenon is not the least reason why even some of Cameron’s most consistent critics did not call for him to resign if he lost the referendum. The more time the Tory party had to consider Johnson as a potential leader, and what that entailed, the better. Some MPs are angry that Cameron did not take immediate responsibility for cleaning up the mess he had helped make and preside over the exit negotiations. His colleagues feel he simply couldn’t be bothered, which is consistent with the often idle way he ran both his opposition and the government – an idleness that prevented him putting any contingency plan in place. The grand gesture, the great claim and the sweep of rhetoric are very arresting, and take little time. Following through is harder: but Cameron has a long record of not considering the consequences of words and actions, and this debacle for him is the ultimate, and most spectacular, example.

The pessimism that Johnson’s detractors felt about stopping him rested in what they knew and saw of the self-interest of their more bovine colleagues. The first concern of one group is to back the winner, and they came to think that would be Johnson (something with the status, in those circumstances, of a self-fulfilling prophecy). They also thought that should Labour find a new leader and become a serious opposition, Johnson was the man most likely to win an election. Whether that would come next spring – if the new leader sought a new mandate as Gordon Brown did not in 2007 – or in 2020, as the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act decrees, is a separate but important question. Johnson’s acolytes let it be known he would not call an early poll. He (or any other leader) would be absolutely constitutionally justified in not doing so. More to the point, you do not plot from the womb to become the Queen’s first minister only to risk chucking away the key to the Downing Street drinks cabinet after a few weeks. However, a weakened Labour Party may prove an irresistible target, and Tories recall how history would have been different if Gordon Brown had gone to the country in the autumn of 2007, as many urged him to do.

The press – and not just on the left – could well have given Johnson a hard time. His baroque private life has exhausted its capacity to shock, but there is scope to scrutinise his record of underachievement as mayor of London; or Michael Howard’s sacking him for lying; or the Times sacking him for making up quotations (from his godfather) in a story; or his offering to assist his old schoolfriend Darius Guppy in having a journalist who had disobliged Guppy beaten up. 

The manoeuvring May

Theresa May’s ambitions have been barely concealed. She has been “on manoeuvres” since the 2015 general election. She worked out that the best way to manoeuvre during the referendum campaign was to say nothing, to avoid becoming a divisive figure. Aside from some rare moments of half-hearted support for Remain, that is exactly what she did. Had she gone the other way, the leadership contest might have seemed closer, because her seniority and experience would have matched Johnson’s charisma. As it was, until Johnson pulled out, the best her colleagues believed she could hope for, barring some dramatic development, was to come second. A Times poll on Tuesday said that Tory voters preferred her to Johnson, which had the smell of accuracy about it. Activists – those with a vote – are a different matter. They appear in no mood at the moment to elect a Remainer.

Yet they are in some measure in the mood to elect a unifier. For all his attempts at sober statesmanship since the vote, Johnson (given his past) would have had to stretch credulity even more than usual to convince as one of those. The anyone-but-Boris movement has been motivated by the list of his perceived offences and character defects. Few believe he would have plumped for Leave had he thought it would lose: Johnson’s years on the rubber chicken circuit, and his mailbag from Telegraph readers in the provinces, made him more aware than most of his metropolitan colleagues of the true nature of public feeling outside the bubble. He is seen as utterly flexible in terms of principle: and, from the nature of his campaign rhetoric, as disloyal, cynical and lazy. Critics recall the number of deputy mayors (seven at one point) he required to do his last job. He is widely considered untrustworthy.

Perhaps he could have unified activists who seem near universally to admire his carefully manufactured persona: he would have found it harder to unify the parliamentary party, and would probably require a resounding general election victory before doing so. Even then, doubts born of years of witnessing his buffoonery and prevarication would be hard to allay.

The unifiers

MPs felt that two other Brexiteers had far better credentials as unifiers. The most obvious was Michael Gove, whom some tried to persuade to stand; but until today Gove had signalled his willingness to throw in his lot with Johnson.

The other increasingly discussed name in the days after the referendum was Andrea Leadsom, the energy minister and, before that, economic secretary to the Treasury. Many even in her own party never thought of her as a potential leader until recent weeks: but these were weeks in which she showed her key virtues. She is intelligent and capable. She had a long career in business before entering government, and presents a happy contrast to ministers who spent their lives as special advisers before gracing the back benches. Leadsom is deeply principled but also reasonable: she abstained in the vote on same-sex marriage because she did not want to show a lack of respect to homosexuals and lesbians who wished to solemnise their relationships, but she could not support the notion because of her religious views. Remainers consider her to have performed uniformly well in debates and television interviews during the EU campaign, because she avoided personal attacks, spurious claims and wild threats.

She is popular with her colleagues. However, if she has let her name go forward she will start from the back of the field. It would require the sort of organisation that enabled Mrs Thatcher to beat Ted Heath in 1975 if she were to pull this off. However, should Johnson implode during this campaign, and she had become a candidate, she would be fabulously well placed to pick up his voters.

May would seem to be way ahead as the Remain candidate, but will have to earn that position in the hustings that will run over the summer. The dark horse is Stephen Crabb, who replaced Iain Duncan Smith at Work and Pensions, in league with Sajid Javid, a secret Leaver who called it wrongly and who is now trying to salvage his future. A self-deprecating man from a humble background and with few enemies, Crabb, who was previously Welsh secretary, reminds me of John Major, who was brought into the cabinet and rose rapidly. In a leadership campaign held in the middle of a parliament, Major won and became prime minister, trading heavily on a backstory of his unprivileged upbringing. He may be the man May must beat.

George Osborne has ruled himself out but remains relevant. He wants to carry on in government and, like the overgrown student politician he is, may be about to make an accommodation with those he has denounced for months in order to continue to hold a senior post. Also, not least because of Cameron’s laziness and casual attitude towards his party, he had exercised a substantial and growing influence over patronage and especially over senior government appointments. He had made a point of getting to know MPs on the way up, not least because he expected to be prime minister and wanted to be sure he had a clientele of loyalists to support him. He was starting to appoint his ministerial team, in effect, before becoming prime minister.

Osborne’s prospects have crashed, but his machine remains, for the moment, intact. If he has chosen wisely, he has a group of loyalists whom he can deploy in support of the candidate he chooses. However, now he can be of no use to his clients, it will be interesting to see whether they take the blindest bit of notice of him.

There was talk of Johnson making him foreign secretary, which would show an advanced sense of humour, given the role that person might have to play in the exit negotiations. Gove, if he had thrown in his lot with Johnson, might have ended up as chancellor.

The party is so fractious that the next nine weeks could provide a roller coaster: any talk of going back on the idea of strict border controls, for instance – something Johnson hinted at – could cause huge turbulence. I suspect we are about to find that conducting a leadership contest at any time is a project laced with tension; to conduct one in a climate of scarcely concealed hysteria is not least why anything could yet happen.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and the Sunday Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies