It was with little surprise, and indeed little fanfare, that the battle lines for May’s General Election were codified. Chancellor George Osborne remained resolute in his argument that the choice faced by the British people is one of Tory economic competence and a return to the ‘boom-and-bust’ of the Blair/Brown years.
Labour, in turn, will seek to fight the election on the subject of the NHS, the topic on which they have been consistently strong. However, one problem for Ed Miliband is the NHS in Wales, which under Labour’s guidance is in an even worse “crisis” than its English counterpart. Though this nuance may not yet have permeated to voters, it illustrates the soft underbelly of Labour’s health-centric strategy.
Prime Minister’s Questions were a typically raucous affairs, with each leader trading blows, but with limited impact. There are times when both men resemble heavy weight boxers in the final rounds – punch drunk, disorientated and unable to land a killer blow.
With insurgent parties on both the left and right of the spectrum questions should be asked as to whether a more bold strategy is needed to ignite popular interest and claim back voters wooed by the Greens, SNP, UKIP et al.
In discussions with backbenchers, whether red or blue, the disconnection they feel between their parties’ traditional values and their leader’s limited vision is palpable. The next Prime Minister may well face deep malaise from day one and run the risk of future rebellions should they fail to adequately address their MP’s reservations.
These rifts could well deepen if new alliances are sought with old enemies. How, for example, would Scottish Labour MPs react to a formal deal with the SNP? Similarly, how would fiscally restrained Conservatives react to DUP demands for the ring-fencing of budgets in Northern Ireland?
No one goes into politics with the intention of losing elections, but, for a myriad of reasons, it is possible that May’s ballot will produce no real winner. With the bulk of spending cuts still to come, tensions over Europe rising and internal discord bubbling beneath the surface whoever enters Number 10 after May the 7th is bound to face a turbulent term in office. Until then we can only sit back and analyse a contest that threatens to be one of the toughest, if not intriguing, in modern political history.
What Will Syriza Mean for Europe?
Elections in Greece have rarely, if ever, captured international attention. However, the ballot being held on January 25th could well have radical implications across the EU.
Leading the polls are Syriza, a radical leftist party led by the charismatic Alexis Tspiras. Rigidly opposed to austerity measures, Syriza are calling for a debt relief settlement to be agreed, a European new deal backed up by a new continental investment bank, emergency measures to get people back into work, increasing the minimum wage and a war on tax avoidance and capital flight. In a country where poverty has surged to over 40% of the population and unemployment it is little surprise that the previously fringe party, founded just 3 years ago, have surged into a 3 point lead in recent weeks.
However, many in Europe are worried. It should be remembered that Greece has been bailed out to the tune of £187 billion and is, currently, experiencing a period of fragile growth after six years of stagnation. Tspiras’ message of “ending austerity politics” also seems at odds with the tide of politics across the continent, where the emphasis remains firmly on fiscal responsibility. A further concern is that Greece could leave the Euro. While this would be manageable, there is little doubt that it would raise questions as to the currency’s viability and value.
There are some signs that Syriza coming to power may not be the disaster some have predicted. George Stathakis, the party’s spokesman on development, has rebuffed claims that the party is antibusiness, stating: “We want to make life easier for businesspeople, to help remove problems with bureaucracy that they complain about… It’s important to be able to create jobs.” In particular, he has pledged to break down the monopolies that dominate Greece’s economy and protected by the traditional political order. Stathakis has pointed to broadcasting licences as one area that could be liberalised and made more competitive, stating that this process “would earn more than a hundred million Euros.”
Leaders in Brussels and Berlin should also be aware that Euclid Tsakalotos, shadow finance minister and an Oxford educated economist, has stressed that Syriza’s platform is perhaps not that radical, arguing that “We really have a programme the old labour parties and the social democrats used to have.” Indeed, he has dismissed claims that the party is seeking to leave the Euro.
Alexis Tspiras’ suggestion that “the future has already begun” are perhaps a tad premature, but it seems that change is afoot. Rather than fearing, and indeed resisting, it, European leaders, whatever their favoured rosette, should look for common ground. Though growth is slowly returning it seems that the continent’s future is far from secure. With the Euro falling into deflation the prospect of quantitative easing looms on the horizon and if the markets respond negatively to any Syriza victory a greater degree of political unity and cross-continental collaboration will be a necessity.
Post-Cameron Positioning? The Cold War between Theresa May and George Osborne Continues
While the focus of British politics is unsurprisingly the competition between Ed Miliband and David Cameron, a no less intriguing competition is becoming increasingly clear on the Coalition’s front bench. Chancellor George Osborne and Home Secretary Theresa May are undoubtedly two of the Conservative’s ‘big beasts’ and, along with London Mayor Boris Johnson, the frontrunners to take up the mantle of party leader should David Cameron lose May’s General Election.
On Monday, the Home Secretary defended her plan to expel international students from Britain after they graduate, despite vocal criticism from many in the private sector and even some on the Government’s own benches. May claimed that upwards of 70,000 foreign students failed to leave the country each year and suggested that if nothing was done this situation would spiral. In a nod to her party’s right-wing and the insurgent threat of UKIP, she added that this policy would be included in the Conservative manifesto. However, within twenty-four hours Conservative officials, allegedly working under the Chancellor’s instruction, had told The Financial Times that this pledge would categorically not be included in the party’s manifesto. Osborne himself took to the airwaves, telling Radio 4: “I don’t think it was a good idea, it was never Conservative policy and I’m glad that from these reports it’s never going to be.”
In recent months May has looked to bolster her public image. A high profile appearance on Desert Island discs, coupled with lifestyle pieces with The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph, have tempered her steely reputation. However, she remains something of a political outsiders, working diligently with a small, trusted team. Certainly she couldn’t be characterised as clubbable. By contrast Osborne has made efforts to extend his influence in the tea rooms and bars of Westminster. He is a loyal supporter of David Cameron, a relationship that seems to be reciprocal. However, while his most recent Autumn Statement demonstrates arch political savvy he divides opinion, even amongst Tory voters who feel that despite his economic competence he is lacking in charisma.
The fissures between May and Osborne may well be the preserve of political anoraks, but they risk becoming an unwanted electoral headache for David Cameron. Consistently behind in the polls and facing questions as to his mettle, the Prime Minister needs to demonstrate strong leadership and hold his front bench together. Certainly Boris Johnson will be watching with interest and hoping that he can capitalise should discord bubble to the surface.
This blog post was originally sent out on Friday in our newsletter Whitehall Weekly. You can sign up for it here.
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