Should Britain expect more from the Special Relationship with the United States than managed decline? What price should progressives be willing to pay for influence? Latest in our #progressivedilemmas series on conundrums facing the next Labour government.
I have a Telegraph piece on where Mr Cameron’s summit preparations have gone wrong. Enniskillen is no Gleneagles for one very simple reason: this PM hasn’t put in a shift.
Remember how Gordon Brown used the Treasury to keep the rest of the Cabinet on a short leash? Seems like Ed Balls is up to the same trick:
It’s almost cliched to paint Balls as the the crudest of tax and spenders, throwing money at a failed system in a desperate attempt to turn the ship around. To read much of the media coverage around the shadow chancellor (and for that matter, the Labour leader), you’d presume they long for nothing more than another spending binge.
Yet tell that to the shadow cabinet, many of whom feel stymied in their attempts to even float potential new policies (nevermind make concrete spending commitments) by the strict control Balls’ office has maintained over even potential spending commitments. Nothing that could even notionally impinge on economic policy is put forward without the explicit say so of the shadow chancellor – a cause for silent frustration for many seeking to make their mark around the shadow cabinet table.
I am sure Ed Miliband is enjoying this as much as Tony Blair did.
Yesterday, I indulged in some late night speculation, wondering whether the only ‘impossible’ election outcome – the Queen being forced to send parties back to the country – might now have an outside chance of popping out of the pack.
Why consider such an outlandish possibility?
It’s important to do so, I think, because that’s the only way to make good decisions under conditions of radical uncertainty.
Look at how David Cameron’s team is said by the Telegraph to have acted even before polls closed last week:
By shortly after 7pm on Thursday, Jeremy Heywood, the Permanent Secretary at 10, Downing Street, received an extraordinary telephone call.
On the line was one of David Cameron’s closest aides, so confident of a Conservative majority that he spent the next five minutes dictating the names of every minister in the new Cameron government and the names of the civil servants who would be sacked the next day.
Even in the midst of the most unpredictable election in a generation, I suspect the Conservatives were far too committed to their preferred outcome to be well prepared for the labyrinth of choices that would soon confront them.
Similarly, I don’t believe Nick Clegg had really gamed out the dilemma his push for electoral reform would place all leaders in, as they became exposed to the unpredictable and shifting preferences of their own and each others’ backbenchers; and – through a referendum – to those of the public.
I wonder too whether Labour ‘strategists’ (most of whom are actually dyed-in-the-wool tacticians) saw credible routes to power if Gordon Brown resigned. Or was this merely a Hail Mary pass disguised as a game-changing moment?
(My first thoughts when Brown used his decision to stand aside as a negotiating ploy were: (i) Which of the leadership candidates were involved in the decision? And (ii) Will this later be seen in the same light as McCain’s surprise announcement that an unknown Alaskan governor was joining him on the Presidential ticket?)
In conditions of uncertainty, parties need what I think of as resilient strategies – ones that are not easily shifted from long-term goals, but blend this with a sensitivity to unpredictable outcomes, and which look beyond preferred outcomes to encompass a ‘plan b’ (c, d, e…) for failure.
So here’s a question for parties. Which of them has a ‘red team’ that has been isolated from the negotiations and has been asked to think simply about how the party should react to a ‘no deal’?
During the negotiations, the Tories have made major policy shifts, which they are going to find hard to reconcile with their core platform. Labour has initiated what is likely to be a long and acrimonious leadership campaign, which is going to turn it inwards at a time of national crisis. And the Liberal Democrats have sacrificed their reputation as standing for something other than the ‘same old politics’.
Each of them – in different ways – now stands on unstable ground. Unless their strategies are resilient to changed circumstances, they could find their support eroding very fast indeed.
[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]
A week ago, when I tried to map the outcomes that would follow a close UK general election, I found it hard to find any easy path to the Lib Dems getting their primary goal – electoral reform with full PR.
In all scenarios, I suggested you should:
- Expect an extended period of political instability at a time when the government will face a highly challenging domestic and international agenda.
- Give at least reasonable odds for the whole enterprise ending in ignominious failure.
A referendum would de-stabilise any government, I argued. LibCon because ruling partners would campaign on opposite sides. LibLab because there’d be an obvious risk of losing the public vote, especially if the electorate was mostly motivated by a wish to punish the government.
And if a referendum on electoral reform was won, then the Lib Dems would of course want an election as soon as possible. If it was lost, the party would lose its main reason for staying in a coalition.
The fear of these outcomes, meanwhile, would make it harder to form a government in the first place. Why would any party form a deal if it couldn’t be sure what it was going to get for it?
Now we are deep into precisely this mess. The problem has been compounded by the failure of leaders to recognise the first rule of coalition-building: negotiate first with your base.
As I wrote yesterday:
[Cameron] is making a big mistake if he gets out too far in front of his party. He’s going to need every single of his MPs to back his first Queen’s Speech. And he’ll then be vulnerable to any subsequent rebellion turning into a confidence issue.
And what about Labour? […] Assume Brown goes, I simply cannot see how a new leader will have any legitimacy to lead a Lib-Lab coalition and take power as PM. For a start, there’d be a messy and lengthy succession process. After that the new leader would be damaged goods from the get-go – tarred with the ‘unelected’ brush that so damaged his (or her?) predecessor.
Sure enough, Conservative backbench support looks even more shaky now that leaders have suddenly offered the Lib Dems a referendum on electoral reform.
Meanwhile, Gordon Brown’s shock resignation (planned by a small clique) was hailed as a game changer, but a LibLab pact is already facing attack from within his own party (mutual assured destruction for both parties, according to John Reid).
Amidst the uncertainty, too many pundits have tried to maintain the fiction that they know what is about to happen.
How many times have we been told absolute tosh about the negotiations between parties, by people who make it sound as if they have spent the day sitting on David Cameron’s knee, but are actually passing on ill-informed scuttlebutt, or simply making things up?
The truth is this election has left British politics snookered. Four days after the vote, we are still no nearer to knowing what is going to happen.
I’d guess there’s still a good chance that a deal of some sort will be cobbled together in the next few days, but even then, it could fail to make it through a Queen’s Speech (for LibCon a few defectors will have enormous power, while LibLab will need the support or acquiescence of other parties).
So, at the same time, I wonder whether the only ‘impossible outcome’ – the one commentators said could never happen – may now have an outside chance of popping out of the pack.
Maybe we will see no swift resolution, no outbreak of amity, no sudden agreement on what the ‘national interest’ means. Instead, perhaps a fresh election will be the only solution left standing, and not called later this year – but reluctantly – in the next few weeks.
[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]