Get ready for a year of upheavals
This will be the year of the political identity crisis. As we enter 2011, all three major parties are having internal debates about who they are and what they stand for.Add to that the fact that there is discontent in the ranks of all three parties and it makes for a particularly volatile combination. It could turn out to be even more dramatic politically than 2010.
The past 12 months have transformed the Liberal Democrats. At the beginning of the year, they were perceived as the most harmless of political parties, the one that actors could safely endorse without hurting their image. Nobody could be bothered to hate them. By the end of the year, however, their leader was being burnt in effigy and Lib Dem MPs were taking advice on how to deal with letter bombs.
It has not been an easy transition. As one Tory who works closely with the Liberal Democrats puts it, ‘We Tories have spent our entire lives preparing to be hated. They haven’t.’ The problem is that many Liberal Democrats yearn to be on the other side of the barricades. An alliance with the Tories seems most unnatural.
The Daily Telegraph’s sting operation revealed just how uneasy many Lib Dem ministers are with their bedfellows in government. But what should worry Clegg more than these private musings is that disgruntled Lib Dems are beginning to go public with their concerns. Richard Grayson, former vice-chairman of the all-powerful Federal Policy Committee, has urged his fellow Liberal Democrats to reach out to Ed Miliband. Tim Farron, the party’s newly elected president, has suggested that he regrets voting to go into coalition with the Tories.
These unhappy noises will get louder if the party continues to bump along in single figures in the polls, does badly in the May elections and is on the wrong side of the result in the voting reform referendum. If the referendum is lost, Clegg’s internal critics will say that the alliance with the Tories has discredited the case for reform and that the party must get out of the coalition before it does the same to the Liberal Democrats.
But the Liberal Democrats have always been the most ideologically diverse of the three main parties. Some Liberal Democrats, including many of those closest to Clegg, see the new government as almost ideal: the Orange Book made flesh.
They will have no truck with any talk of
leaving. They believe, rightly, that the Liberal Democrats have crossed the Rubicon and that any attempt to return to the far bank would leave the party looking wet and foolish. As Jeremy Browne told those undercover reporters, ‘We’d never be in government again.’
By the autumn, the party could be in a stand-off situation. The Lib Dem conference could pass motions critical of government policy which Nick Clegg and his ministers simply refuse to heed.
The main beneficiary of the Liberal Democrats’ troubles has been Ed Miliband. The Westminster pack can only hunt one quarry
All three parties are debating what they stand for, and all three have discontent in their ranks at a time and Clegg’s travails have thrown them off Miliband’s scent. This is giving him the time he needs to get his operation fully staffed and organised.
Just before Parliament went down for Christmas, Miliband announced that he had hired Bob Roberts, the political editor of the Daily Mirror, and Tom Baldwin, the Times’s chief reporter, to do press and strategy for him. These two experienced political journalists are giving the Labour attack machine its bite back; the party’s harassing of the government over its little understood plans to reform the health service is pitch-perfect opposition politics. This is providing the covering fire that Miliband needs as he attempts to establish himself.
Miliband also benefits from the Lib Dems’ problems because Labour are now the only party of the centre-left in Britain. But in order to take advantage of this political opening, he must first prove that Labour still has a pur
‘King Herod has a radical plan to halve the child welfare budget.’
pose when there is no state money to spend.
The party which should be heading into 2011 in good spirits is the Tories. Despite a disappointing general election result, David Cameron still managed to make it into Downing Street. In power, the party has begun enacting a fiscally conservative economic policy and radical public service reform. The state is being rolled back. The icing on the cake is that the party is now more popular than it was on polling day.
But Tory MPs are in truculent mood. The reason, as usual, is that they have not been shown enough love. Cameron needs to hug a backbencher or two. One story illustrates the point. Shortly before Christmas, an ambitious new Tory backbencher was having a drink with a Labour colleague. The Labour MP, who hadn’t voted for Ed Miliband, said that he was warming to him. Miliband had invited him over to his office to talk to him. ‘He gave me his mobile number and told me to call him if anything was bothering me,’ he said. The Tory MP almost dropped his drink. He couldn’t believe that a party leader would give his number to an ordinary backbencher. The contrast with Cameron could not be more striking. Tory MPs feel increasingly estranged from their leader.
Another thing irritating Tory MPs is how differently the party hierarchy treats their Lib Dem colleagues. Lib Dems who abstained on tuition fees received sympathy and understanding. But a Tory MP who abstained was told that her seat would be abolished under boundary changes and that she would receive no help in finding another one.
This gap between the Tory leadership and the back benches is dangerous.What makes it particularly problematic is that the whips are failing to keep tabs on the mood in the parliamentary ranks.The first the Prime Minister knew of a brewing revolt over Europe was when a senior backbencher raised it with him on the eve of the vote on the EU Budget.
In the past seven months, we have seen how coalition strengthens the bonds between the leadership of the two coalition parties and weakens those between the leaderships and their parties. This dynamic will become even more apparent in 2011.
This year will see the coalition emerge as its own political force, distinct from both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. By the end of it, I suspect that both Clegg and Cameron will be seeking each other’s protection against their own parties.
the spectator | 1 January 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk Max Hastings
The past year was one of so much gloom and doom — a smidgen of it perpetrated in print by me — that it seems embarrassing to admit that the Hastingses had a wonderful time. The garden flourished in blissful weather; we saw great movies like The Secrets In Their Eyes; enchanting theatre like Design for Living at the Old Vic; read wholly pleasing books including Adam Sisman’s biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper and The Hare With Amber Eyes; and basked in TV’s Mad Men. I enjoyed our friendships almost as much as the rows, some of the latter detailed below. Is it wicked to avow so much happiness?
My wife thinks book reviewing and Christmas recommendations corrupt, because they are so often influenced by relationships. I try to persuade her otherwise, but sometimes stumble. Not long ago, the Times contacted me, asking if I would write an introductory blurb for a history book promotion. I put the usual question: how much? Oh, nothing as vulgar as money would change hands, they responded, but they would give ‘additional publicity’ to my next book. I said: the Times never reviews my work, so ‘additional publicity’ means nought plus nought; forget it. I am a fan of the paper, and James Harding is perhaps the ablest of the new generation of editors. But this seemed a shifty little proposal.
To the Imperial War Museum, where I wandered through the new VC gallery, which Lord Ashcroft has funded as part of his philanthropic offensive. David Cameron’s failure to sack Ashcroft — instead allowing the Conservative vicechairman to walk, then rubbish his leadership — seemed inexplicably weak. At a recent City lunch, Ashcroft accosted me aggressively. ‘I’ve got a bone to pick with you,’ he said. ‘You wrote in the Daily Mail that I had broken a pledge.’ I responded mildly that he could hardly imagine anyone would have made him a peer had they known that his tax residence was still in Belize. He returned to the charge, bullying away. I riposted that he bought the Conservative party at a bargain-basement price, and Tories learned bitterly to regret their bargain. I never mind a fight, but I suggested that even in Belize he might have learned enough manners not to row at other people’s tables. Our host eventually separated us, but it seems hard to regard his lordship as a philanthropist merely because he tosses a few cheques to good causes in lieu of the tens of millions he has not paid in British tax, while seeking to influence British politics.
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Afriend gave up shooting when he was 70, a sadness because I have enjoyed his company on winter Saturdays for 30 years. It was easy to understand that he no longer wanted to kill birds, but surprising that he could forgo the chat. I love the serendipity of meeting different groups of eight people, from each of which I learn something. In Devon a fortnight ago there was a persuasive account of what is wrong with the NHS; in Nottinghamshire, discussion of the Supreme Court; in Gloucestershire, debate about the euro. I like shooting, too, but that is a bonus.
Ihave held no public service appointment since finishing a happy stint as a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, partly because of unwillingness to fill in the tenpage form that invites candidates to plead their own credentials. When recently asked if I would serve on the arts and media honours scrutiny committee, the Cabinet Office invited me to meet the committee’s grand panjandrums, Jenny Abramsky and the inevitable Dennis Stevenson. The encounter went pleasantly enough until they asked what I thought of Salman Rushdie’s knighthood. I responded that it seemed idiotic. ‘But don’t you believe in rewarding excellence?’ cried Dame Jenny in anguish. Yes, I said, but only if the recipient offers at least lip service to Britain, as Rushdie had not. After failing this litmus test, I idly mentioned the satirical political correctness of the National Heritage Lottery Fund’s application form, before remembering that the Dame chairs it. It was no surprise afterwards to receive a courteous little note from Lord Stevenson, saying that my services would not be required; the latest New Year Honours are unscrutinised by me. But why waste an afternoon of their time and mine, when we knew each other already? It seemed silly, gesture Nolanism.
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Good Thing of the Year award must go to Neil MacGregor, as director of the BM and presenter of the wonderful Radio 4 series on artefacts that have changed the world. The government should sack almost all the New Labour commissars running arts quangos, and put MacGregor in charge of Absolutely Everything.
the spectator | 1 January 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk