A friend asked me on Christmas Day: “Who will have the best 2014 – David Cameron, Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg?” “Nigel Farage,” I replied.
The biggest test for all four leaders next year will be the European Parliament elections in May. Mr Farage’s UK Independence Party is well placed to come first, though when I visited Brussels last week I found that some Labour MEPs privately think their party can win but are playing down expectations – the oldest trick in the election book. A safe prediction is that the Conservatives will finish a disastrous third just a year before the 2015 general election.
And yet 2014 may be a year of political paradoxes, just as 2013 has been. Mr Miliband scored the political bullseye of the past year. His promise of a 20-month energy price freeze set the agenda for two months, sending the Tories into a tailspin. The pledge would cost nothing, as the energy companies would pay the price. Brilliant, but more a policy for opposition than government. Wise Labour heads know the party must say much more about what it would do in power. Mr Miliband needs some equally powerful symbolic policies to illustrate his different priorities, and must show Labour can take the much-vaunted “tough decisions” in a continuing age of austerity.
The biggest paradox of 2013 was that Labour could claim to have won the economic argument and yet appeared to lose it. George Osborne’s Plan A didn’t really work because growth took three years to come. But he stuck to his guns and never admitted he was changing his strategy, even though eliminating the deficit was spread over a longer period. Stronger than expected growth forecasts allowed the Chancellor to argue that his plan is working.
Twelve months ago, Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne would have taken the position they are in today if the Christmas tree fairy had offered it. Mr Clegg is in the same boat – because he is still leader of his party. The Deputy Prime Minister could well have been ousted if the Liberal Democrats had lost the Eastleigh by-election in February. Mr Clegg has learnt a lot about governing in the past three and a half years; his only way was to learn on the job. He looks more comfortable in his own skin when his party is “differentiating” – showing it is not the same as the Tories.
All three main party leaders may find the paradox of 2014 is that their underlying position is different to how things look on the surface. Labour could still be ahead in the opinion polls in 12 months’ time, but if the recovery continues and the party doesn’t answer doubts about its economic competence, Labour’s lead could melt away in the heat of the general election battle.
Mr Miliband could win in 2014 and still emerge as the loser in 2015. Mr Cameron will have a bumpy ride after the European elections. A few Tory backbenchers may plot to oust him, even though there really is no alternative.
He will reshuffle his Cabinet and survive. The general election scales are tipped against him because the Tories need a much bigger winning margin in the share of the vote than Labour. But crucially, many voters will not tune into politics until the start of 2015. A better story on the economy by then could give Mr Cameron a greater chance of holding on to power than the polls suggest. He could lose in 2014 and yet still come out on top as leader of the largest party in 2015.
Similarly, Mr Clegg’s underlying position may be stronger than it looks. The number of Liberal Democrat MEPs could be cut from 12 to just two in the European elections and the party is likely to bump along at about 10 per cent in the polls.
And yet Mr Clegg might well be a better bet to be in his current post after the general election than Mr Cameron or Mr Miliband. Neither of them can be confident of winning an overall majority and may find themselves relying on the Lib Dems in coalition or a looser partnership. Mr Clegg could lose half of his 56 MPs and still win.
The brutal reality of politics almost certainly means that only one out of Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband will keep their job after the general election. The loser will be pushed out by their own party if they don’t jump. Which one? We will get some clues in 2014, but the answer will have to await 2015.
A sense of hope could conquer fear at the next election
The Conservatives used the vacuum of the Christmas period for a silly stunt targeting Ed Miliband. Their Boxing Day serving to the Tory-supporting papers was the “revelation” under the Freedom of Information Act that Mr Miliband and his officials “blew £125,000 in nine months on posh hotels and travel” while he was Energy and Climate Change Secretary in the previous government.
Bob Neill, the normally mild-mannered Tory vice-chairman, was no doubt persuaded to issue this statement: “Like all good champagne socialists, the Labour leader has no respect for the public purse.”
Politicians pump out this sort of bilge and then wonder why the public hold them in such low esteem. Yesterday an ICM poll showed that 46 per cent of people cited “MPs just on the take” when asked what was likely to put them off voting, second behind politicians not keeping their promises (64 per cent).
By coincidence, Mr Miliband told the Daily Mirror yesterday that the Tories “don’t have anything positive to offer the country and so they will resort to a dirty and negative campaign.”
Indeed, one candid Tory insider told me: “It [the campaign] will be based on fear – of mass immigration, scroungers, handing the keys back to Labour, a return to boom and bust.”
The aim is partly to negate the Ukip threat but mainly to deter swing voters from backing Mr Miliband.
The Tories will certainly do fear. The task for Labour in 2014 is to reach out to a much wider group of voters and offer a sense of hope.