05 April 2010

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

We are, of course, nearing the Final Act, and over the next few weeks, across the UK, the last scenes will be played out. Will the curtain fall, or will there be a sequel that few of us were expecting?

I'm in a dramatic mood today (hence the rejig and the culling of the blogroll) and there are times when such urges just have to be indulged. After all, tomorrow Gordon Brown will almost certainly go to the Palace and seek a dissolution of Parliament. It's going to be tomorrow: it's either then, or next month, anyway.

I was never convinced by the wave of expectation, sweeping us all towards an early General Election back in Autumn 2007. Let's face it, Brown had spent thirteen long, agonising years plotting and scheming to eject his colleague Tony Blair, and having had all sorts of golden opportunities over the period, never quite managed it: Blair went of his own accord, having announced of his own initiative that the 2005 Election would be his last. Brown's acolytes got the concession that the 2006 Conferences would be his last, but again, Brown himself was not in a position to land the final blow, and it was Blair who set his final departure date and somehow, despite everything, left the stage with the audience wanting an encore.

No, Brown had spent the time waiting, plotting and hoping, but never quite having the bottle to make the ultimate decisive move that would bring about his move next door at a time when he wanted. Why, then, having waited so long, would he risk it all in an election that could have seen him leave 10 Downing Street before his feet were properly under the desk? Why, after 13 years of cautious inaction, would he blow it on one massively reckless move? That wasn't his style and that election was never going to happen. Still, we all planned for it - just in case.

Then 2009 came. And went again. That's how it was always going to be: after an ugly git of a 2008 for the Government, and Labour (not completely fairly) getting the blame for the expenses scandal, he was never going to go last year. Again, it wasn't his style.

So why, then, am I sure that, with a choice between going to the Palace tomorrow, and leaving it a month, he'll go tomorrow?

Image. It's what did for Callaghan in the end: he thought Prime Minister 1976-79 looked better in the history books than 1976-78. Similarly, Brown didn't want the 2007 Election as he didn't want to have the shortest term of office since George Canning, who had the excuse of dying in office. Of course, Brown has metaphorically died in office many times over, but that's beside the point. Image counts, and going tomorrow gives Brown at least some dignity and credibility. Wait another month and he'll spend the next four PMQs getting filleted.

Besides, there are elections anyway on 6 May, to local Councils (including the London Boroughs), and recent history is very clear: the polls will be timed to co-incide. It used to be that Governments tried to avoid that at all costs, it was a factor in the timing of Polling Day when the Callaghan Government fell; Margaret Thatcher went to the country just over a month after local elections in 1983 and did the same in 1987; John Major's re-election took place just four weeks before local elections and European elections, until 2004, always fell a few weeks after council contests.

But it was John Major's departure from office when the approach changed: the 1997 General Election coincided with County Council elections in England; and Blair repeated the process in 2001 (delaying both due to Foot and Mouth) and 2005. He even brought forward Northern Irish local elections so they'd take place concurrently with the Westminster campaign. The 1999 Council Elections in Scotland coincided with the first elections to the Scottish Parliament, and the Parliament passed the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2002, which changed the terms of office for local Councillors from three years to four so that they would continue to coincide (and thanks primarily to the Gould Report, that decision will be undone soon). Local elections were moved back in 2004 and 2009 to coincide with the European Elections, and even the London Mayoral and Assembly elections were moved back in 2004 for the same reason. Indeed, the last time two sets of major contests were held just a few weeks apart was 1999, when the European elections took place just five weeks after elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly (as well as local elections).

It would be a major break with this recent approach, and an act of cowardice to delay any longer.

And what of the outcomes? One gets the feeling that Gordon Brown spent so long plotting to be Prime Minister that he never actually bothered to work out what he'd do once he got the job, and we've had platitudes where there should have been a plan, as the Government has spent the last few years bouncing from fiasco to crisis, like a ping pong ball in a tumble dryer. But still, the polls aren't as unfavourable as they could be - or indeed, have been. The Tories lost half of their seats in 1997, while Labour lost just under a sixth of their seats in 1979. The reality, I guess, will be somewhere between the two and the marker for Labour is 237 seats, a loss of 119 seats or one third of the 2005 actual total. Anything higher than 237, and they can claim to have held off the worst (though as Labour found out to its cost in 1983, the worst could still be to come). Anything lower, and Labour are in disaster territory.

By contrast, you get the feeling that all the Tories stand for is winning elections and there's still no real sense as to what a Tory Government will mean. It seems that David Cameron has been trying so hard to get into Downing Street that he doesn't really know what he'll do when he gets there either - that the Party seems to face both ways on - well, basically everything - makes the sense of uncertainty even greater and that might explain the blip in the polls. Voters like policies they can reach out and touch, and the Tory Government still has this intangible quality that doesn't help its cause. The electoral maths aren't helpful either: a net increase of 107 seats on the Tories' actual 2005 total would be broadly equivalent to the gains made by Tony Blair. That increase would still deliver a Hung Parliament. With a Hung Parliament increasingly likely, 274 (an increase halfway between those of Thatcher and Blair) is the target and anything short of that would be an embarrassment. Anything higher, and the Tories are at the very least on track, and would have the necessary momentum to get their majority in 2011.

For the LibDems, the actual numbers are irrelevant: it's their position relative to everyone else that matters and their requirements are frighteningly specific. There has to be a Hung Parliament, and they - and only they - should be able to carry one party or (preferably) both over the line. If the Tories get a majority, it doesn't matter whether there are nine LibDems or ninety: it's all been for nought. And their campaign doesn't inspire confidence: vote for us, because our spokesman successfully predicted economic doom (I won a bet on Saturday that Bristol City would draw with Nottingham Forest - does that make me an ideal candidate to be Minister for Sport?). Vote for us, and our clunky slogan that's a mishmash of everyone else's. Vote for us, because the other parties are actually drawing up a manifesto specifically designed to make your life a living hell (that's the upshot of "We are the only people who believe in fairness" line). Vote for us, because, really, you shouldn't give a shit about that other lot (that's the upshot of all the SNP-bashing, despite their apparently being irrelevant, and in any case, that's a rather daft claim from party that lost its deposit in the last three Westminster By-Elections in Scotland). And I still haven't forgiven my local LibDem Councillor for saying that he's "not bothered" how I vote in a General Election as long as I vote for him to keep his seat on the Council and get a pretty community garden across the road from his house while a current beauty spot gets flattened for just two houses.

Then there's the SNP. Again, the numbers shouldn't matter too much, but the number 20 does still loom large. It's some way off in the distance, but the number is there. The SNP premise is a clear one: it won't be the Government but it can influence the Government better than its own backbenchers can. And the slogan ("More Nats, Less Cuts") is simple and effective, albeit ungrammatical. The big problem is, with the party basically cut off from the UK-wide media, how does it make sure that its message gets across to the maximum number of people? That's the challenge.

And what of the other parties? Can the Greens make the breakthrough? They can. Will they? We don't know. Can UKIP's Nigel Farage oust John Bercow? I doubt it. Can Nick Griffin get into the House of Commons? Well, if press reports are to be believed he'll have done well getting to polling day without his publicity officer murdering him.

Here are a few early calls:

1. The Tories will have the most votes, and will probably have the most seats. But unless David Cameron is capable of going without oxygen for a fortnight, he shouldn't hold his breath before getting into Downing Street. He will have to wait a while.

2. Nick Clegg will find himself with a lot of explaining to do, either to his Party not getting the result they wanted, or to the press and the public for a cack-handed reaction to getting the result he wanted.

3. No more than 1,000 votes will determine whether or not Caroline Lucas enters the House of Commons.

4. Esther Rantzen's challenge will come to nothing: the main reason Martin Bell won in Tatton in 1997 was that the opposition to Neil Hamilton coalesced around him. That isn't happening in Luton and the vote will be too badly split for her.

5. Nigel Farage will still be an MEP at the end of it all. He'll accuse the main three parties of a 'cosy European consensus' that prevented a fair fight.

6. The SNP will make a real progress in votes and seats, but Labour will attempt to portray the result as a personal disaster for Alex Salmond.

7. This is as much hope as expectation, but if there's any justice, Anne McGuire will have done to her by the people of Stirling what she did to thousands of disabled workers at Remploy.

Now, let the drama begin...

1 comment:

subrosa said...

I think your predictions are reasonably accurate Will, but someone I worry whether the SNP will get more seats, even though I'm sure they'll receive plenty more votes.

Not too sure about Cameron either really as tories around here are swithering between the SNP and the man they think is 'shallow' (plus lots of other descriptions).

So far we've had only personalities rather than any substance. Earlier tonight I watched Nick Clegg on Channel 4 news and was so disappointed. He came across more like a top class salesman (in a similar mould to Cameron) rather than a passionate politician.

Hopefully we'll see some passion in the coming weeks.