Who would have thought that 2010 would be the most dramatic year in British politics in a generation? It started, after all, with the Conservatives still riding high, 10 points ahead in the polls despite signs of a limited Labour revival. In January, the media consensus still pointed to a comfortable Tory victory, if not by a landslide, then with a clear overall majority.
Labour’s problems seemed to deepen when, as British soldiers continued to die in Afghanistan, Tony Blair appeared before the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. The panel focused on the 2002 memo from his foreign policy adviser David Manning, outlining the then prime minister’s commitment to “regime change”. Blair once more offered an impassioned “moral” case for Saddam Hussein’s removal but – as the country was again reminded of the inconsistencies behind the decision to invade – support for Labour fell below 30 per cent in the polls. Meanwhile, the Tories, who had supported the invasion, were flatlining in the late thirties and the Liberal Democrats, who had opposed it, rose surprisingly to the mid-twenties.
Emboldened, Nick Clegg chose the occasion of the London summit on Afghanistan, on 28 January, to call for troop withdrawal. In doing so, he spurned the private advice of Paddy Ashdown, preferring to follow the example of Charles Kennedy, who had bravely stood against the Iraq action seven years earlier.
As popular enthusiasm for his party increased, Clegg faced repeated questions over which way he would jump in the event of a hung parliament. At first, he stuck to the policy of “equidistance”, insisting that he would back whichever party had the most votes. However, as the election drew near, Lib Dem sources began to brief journalists that Labour was the party’s more natural ally.
Brown remained personally unpopular during the early months of the year but his confidence grew as it became clear that a group of disillusioned MPs, led by Charles Clarke, would not rebel against his leadership. Rediscovering his ruthless streak, Brown incessantly highlighted David Cameron’s proposed cut in inheritance tax for the country’s 3,000 richest estates. The Conservative policy was reported to have divided the shadow cabinet, but Cameron defied calls for a U-turn and confirmed that a higher tax threshold would be a firm Tory manifesto pledge – to the delight of Labour strategists.
At the end of February, with the gap between the parties narrowing, Brown ruled out a 25 March election. The following month, Alistair Darling delivered Labour’s boldest Budget since coming to office in 1997. Called the second People’s Budget, after that of Lloyd George in 1909, it placed those earning £100,000 or more in the 50 per cent income-tax bracket. It widened the divide between Labour and the Tories further by raising inheritance tax to 60 per cent for estates worth more than £1m, in order to balance out extensive public expenditure cuts.
As Labour continued to shore up its support base, the Sun stepped up its vilification of Brown, focusing on his alleged “health” problems and at one point asking on its front page: “WOULD YOU TRUST THIS MAN WITH YOUR KIDS?” But the tactic backfired, as it had done with Brown’s letters to parents of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and Rupert Murdoch’s most populist outlet found itself firmly on the wrong side of public opinion.
It was against this backdrop that Britain went to the polls on Thursday 6 May for the most closely fought election since 1992. By polling day, Labour had secured the support of only the Mirror, the Independent on Sunday and, in spite of internal divisions, the New Statesman. Exit polls on the BBC and ITV predicted a Tory victory of between 30 and 50 seats; only Sky News forecast a hung parliament.
It was all the more shocking, therefore, when the following morning it emerged that Labour had scraped through as the largest single party in parliament. (Elsewhere, the BNP failed to gain a seat and Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party lost in Buckingham to the newly popular reforming Speaker, John Bercow.)
It was a spectacular turnaround for Brown, written off by almost everyone in Westminster since the “election that never was” in the autumn of 2007. Even his own MPs dared not believe that he could win an unprecedented fourth term for Labour. Election analysts declared that when the voters got to the polling booths, they opted for the “devil they knew”.
The recriminations were immediate. First, Cameron, who had warned against Tory complacency but always expected victory, took the unusual step of demanding a rerun of the election. Some Tory MPs called on the Queen to intervene, and public pressure increased on the Lib Dems to form a coalition with the Conservatives. After several days of consultation, Clegg said he would back the will of the people and that he was prepared to give Brown the “benefit of the doubt”.
The Tory party was ravaged by infighting of a kind not seen in a decade. Cameron’s attempts at “modernisation” had failed to win the election, according to his detractors. On the major issues, from Europe to tax to immigration, he had fought shy of challenging his own party, as Neil Kinnock did with his battle against Militant in 1985, or as Blair did with his campaign to abolish Labour’s Clause Four in 1994. Pre-election talk that Cameron had brought his party to the centre ground turned out to be misguided, but that perception had remained.
And so, having already tried the “core vote” strategy of William Hague and Michael Howard, the Tories were left feeling as if they had nowhere to turn. David Davis challenged for the party leadership from the backbenches but Cameron narrowly survived.
Meanwhile, Brown reshuffled his cabinet. Yet again, he tried to make his old ally Ed Balls chancellor but the increasingly popular Darling held his ground once more, after winning plaudits from finance ministers around the world for his handling of the economy. Instead, Brown rewarded his political saviour Peter Mandelson with the job of Foreign Secretary, which he had long coveted. Mandelson’s predecessor, David Miliband, declined an offer to become Home Secretary and returned to the back benches.
This inevitably renewed talk of a leadership contest and, by the end of the year, four names were in the frame: David Miliband, Balls, an increasingly impressive Harriet Harman, and James Purnell. But Brown defied them all. Bolstered at last with a mandate of his own, he pressed on until the end of the year, winning an electoral reform referendum. He also called Alex Salmond’s bluff, rescuing the Union with a Scottish referendum that resulted in a resounding 70-30 vote against independence.
Then, surprising everyone, Brown oversaw a smooth transition of his own, handing what he called the “Labour torch” to a new generation. With supreme irony, having secured his domestic legacy, he won the EU presidency Blair had failed to win, after the unimpressive Herman van Rompuy was forced out when his attempts to block Turkish accession were opposed by member states, including Britain.
In December, the new Prime Minister, Ed Miliband, walked unchallenged in to No 10 and immediately recalled his brother, David, to serve as his deputy.
Last year I said . . .
-Gordon Brown would resist calls for a general election in 2009.
-The economies of both the US and the UK would get worse before they got better.
-Afghanistan would prove Barack Obama’s nemesis: there would be renewed bloodshed and no resolution to the conflict.
-Abandoning the ideological commitment to tax cuts remained David Cameron’s best hope for a “Clause Four moment”, but he would retreat into tax and spending cuts and neo-Thatcherite monetarism.
-Europe would remain a headache for Cameron . . . after Ireland narrowly
voted Yes in a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in the autumn. Cameron would have to decide whether to ditch his own commitment to a referendum.
-Alistair Darling would remain Chancellor of the Exchequer.
-Ed Miliband would emerge as the up-and-coming politician of 2009 and come to be regarded as Brown’s natural successor.
James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
Share your thoughts on his political predictions for 2010 at his blog