Topsy-turvy: The year politics was turned on its head

As the parliamentary recess beckons, Matt Chorley assesses the Conservative Prime Minister, Liberal Democrat Deputy PM and new Labour Leader of the Opposition – and analyses the challenges ahead


David Cameron

Party rating: 37 per cent (+1); Good PM? 38 per cent agree

David Cameron was supposed to be packing his Boden shorts and heading for some winter sun. Instead the Prime Minister has cancelled a Christmas trip to Thailand, the blame shared variously between bad planning, human rights concerns and how an extravagant break would look to Brits warming gruel for another austerity Christmas.

On cold, dark nights Cameron might reflect on how his "big, open and comprehensive" offer of full coalition with the Lib Dems seemed a masterstroke at the time, but many of the problems he now faces stem from his failure to win outright in May. There are many who view the deal with the Lib Dems as the completion of the "detoxification" strategy that places the Conservative Party firmly in the centre ground of British politics.

The problem is, not every Tory wants to be there. Douglas Carswell is leading the Eurosceptic charge from the Tory right. Securing a deal with Germany and France on Friday to limit EU budget rises will not placate hardline Eurosceptics. Michael (now Lord) Howard, insists "prison works" and tears into Ken Clarke's softly-softly justice reforms.

Tensions are high among those overlooked for a role in government in favour of a Lib Dem, while traditionalists resent the control exerted by those who failed to secure victory outright and fear talk of a long-term electoral pact with the Lib Dems. Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries spoke for many when she warned last week: "We are not idiots. We know what's happening, and we don't want that because there are Conservative issues that we see being subsumed by the coalition."

Cameron's carefully nurtured reputation for ruthlessness and risk-taking has also taken a hit. In the first seven months of the coalition, the Downing Street operation has at times been dizzy with U-turning. Volte-faces include trying to hijack the powerful backbench 1922 Committee, hiring a "vanity" photographer and film-maker on the taxpayer, giving rape defendants anonymity and scrapping free school milk. A partial reversal is expected tomorrow when Michael Gove's proposed scrapping of funding for school sport partnerships is reviewed.

Despite the simmering anger in some Tory ranks, four out of 10 people think Cameron is turning out to be a good prime minister. One man's U-turn is another's listening politician. The Tories have hung on to 90 per cent of their election supporters since May, compared with the Lib Dems who have lost more than half of their voters. It is this collapse in the support of his coalition partner that caused Cameron to come close to endorsing the Lib Dems in the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election. But it is the traditional Tories who need to be brought in from the cold as the Prime Minister enjoys Christmas at home.

Ed Miliband

Party rating: 39 per cent; Good leader? 17 per cent agree

It is the curse of babies born at Christmas that they only ever get "one big present" rather than the usual two rounds of gifts. Ed Miliband turns 41 on Christmas Eve, but has already take the wrapping off two large and much-needed gifts – Fleet Street's Tom Baldwin and Bob Roberts will head up a new media operation designed to get the flagging Labour leadership back on track.

Alastair Campbell quit working for Tony Blair after the media decided the No 10 communications chief had "become the story". Mr Baldwin, the new director of strategy and communications, is already making headlines of the wrong sort, mostly involving words such as "coke" and "snorting". This soon triggered quips about how in his new role he would dictate to shadow ministers their "lines to take".

The former Times chief reporter was also the subject of a flurry of stories about his record as one of the first journalists to name the weapons expert Dr David Kelly as the source for the BBC claim the Labour government had "sexed up" its dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Meanwhile, Miliband's new director of news is the former political editor of the Daily Mirror, Bob Roberts. Much liked in the lobby, the follicly challenged ex-hack once went to great – if possibly underhand – lengths to win a mystery star prize in a parliamentary quiz, only to be handed a voucher for a free haircut.

The arrival of two street-savvy political hacks could not have come soon enough. A relaunch speech by Miliband last month descended into a farce when journalists were phoned repeatedly by media managers anxious that the big announcement had, er, not been announced.

Performances at Prime Minister's Questions have been mixed – with some truly awful. Half-decent jokes were often trumped by David Cameron. In the last hurrah before the Christmas recess, Miliband said the PM was more comfortable with the "broad brush and airbrush" than policy details. Cameron replied he was "up against Basil Brush". Boom boom.

Discipline in the Labour Party is needed urgently. The shadow Chancellor, Alan Johnson, contradicts his leader on key issues, including the 50p tax rate and a graduate tax. Ed Balls, the shadow Home Secretary, joked on TV last week that he had lent Johnson "a few of my textbooks" on economics, while taking a swipe at Miliband's PMQs strategy: "I've told him to go on the economy every week."

The handling of the Phil Woolas case was messy, with the deputy leader, Harriet Harman, going beyond the call of duty to cut him adrift. The waters were muddied further when John Healey, Labour's health spokesman, joined Woolas in court on the day of his failed appeal. The by-election will be a major test of Ed Miliband's electoral abilities.

The back benches have not helped. Bob Ainsworth's suggestion that all drugs be legalised was greeted with horror – in part because the moustachioed maverick was not parroting party policy, but also, as one fed-up Labour MP put it: "It's a pity Ed can't get on top of the headlines quite so easily."

Nick Clegg

Party rating: 11 per cent (-1); Good leader? 26 per cent agree

After riding the tide of Cleggmania, the Liberal Democrat leader is now a nationwide figure of fun, with even politically unaware teenagers exchanging jokes about the Deputy PM. Facebook, Twitter and text inboxes are full of gags. They range from the subtle: "There's two things I dislike about Nick Clegg. His face." The blunt: "Why did Nick Clegg cross the road? Because he said he wouldn't." And the childlike: "There's a massive fire in Parliament Square – police believe it may be Nick Clegg's pants." In short, they say, he is a two-faced liar. Labour and left-leaning Lib Dems feel betrayed at his "getting into bed" with the Tories, and have seized on the vote to increase tuition fees to as much as £9,000 – against a pre-election pledge to do prevent any rises – to attack the 43-year-old, even in the form of burning effigies.

He joked at a party last week that these were "strange times when Lib Dems are in government and students are campaigning for capital punishment". Little wonder, then, that Clegg is favourite to be replaced as leader before the next election – 6:4, according to Ladbrokes. Ed Miliband is next on 2:1 and David Cameron out on 4:1. In today's Independent on Sunday poll, the Lib Dems are on 11 per cent, their lowest ever vote share in a ComRes survey.

Yet speak to his MPs and there is no sense of the rancour that might be expected from within a party which has just been split three ways voting on a policy upon which several MPs feel their majority depends. "Nick is really in the eye of the storm," says a senior Lib Dem. "He has everything thrown at him, even physically, and I have been struck by how calmly he has accepted it all and is determined to get on with the job."

In an interview with the IoS earlier this month, Clegg was clear he had no regrets about entering the coalition, made no apology for leading a liberal party into power for the first time in 80 years, and can see no circumstances in which the coalition will collapse before 2015. Reflecting on his dramatic decline from being more popular than Churchill to the most hated man in Britain, he insisted: "I never imagined it would be any different."

The rank and file are grumbling. Yesterday Richard Kemp, the most senior Lib Dem councillor in the land, urged Clegg to tackle the "disgraceful" behaviour of the Tory local government ministers Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps, whom he likened to Laurel and Hardy.

Lib Dem policy wins on ending child detention, the pupil premium, and raising the income tax threshold have been drowned out by the sound of policemen's truncheons on protesters. It is the default setting of most political commentators that the Lib Dems are finished.

It is Clegg's great challenge to prove them wrong. Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell bear the scars of being skewered by colleagues who feared faltering leadership could cost their jobs. Clegg must hope the ambitious cohort who wielded the knife are not about to walk away from the power they craved.

ComRes interviewed 2,017 British adults online on 15-16 Dec. Full tables at www.comres.co.uk

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