John Rentoul: How many years out in the cold?

Labour is likely to lose the general election. Its main concern now is damage limitation

Share
Related Topics

If David Cameron wins the the election in May, the big question is this: will he be prime minister for four years or for eight? This is getting ahead of ourselves, I know. We do not want to take the great British public for granted. But let us take the great British public for granted, and assume that they will not warm to Gordon Brown despite his recent rediscovery of a public sense of humour. The probability of Cameron's becoming prime minister implied by the bookmakers' odds is about 90 per cent. This is because, even if the Tories fail to win a majority, they are likely to be largest party and therefore have the better claim to form a minority government.

How the election campaign will be fought is interesting and all that, and might make a small difference to the result, but the important question is: what next? Because there is a big difference between Labour's being out of office for four years or for eight. A Cameron government, elected on a programme of protecting the NHS, promoting new non-selective state schools and furthering equality, cannot do much to dismantle the Blair-Brown social democratic settlement in a single parliament.

Yes, Cameron and George Osborne (who gave a rare interview to Newsnight last week) want to cut public spending earlier and more deeply than Labour does. But the difference is being pared and sanded down all the time. By polling day, it will be reduced to a notional cut in the fiscal year beginning in April, and the smallest possible extra cut on top of Labour's plans thereafter that is visible to the naked eye. Like the plan to "recognise marriage in the tax system", now reduced to an unspecified but nugatory amount, that Cameron candidly admitted was "about the message more than the money", the supposedly harsher spending cuts are largely symbolic. Now symbolism is important in politics, but it takes a long time to work.

Thus it will not be until the election after next that the Tory party will be able to return to the small-state, tax-cutting place where its heart is. Not that taxes are likely to be cuttable even then, given the disastrous state of the public finances, but by then tax cuts may figure as part of the Tories' "forward offer", or whatever the heirs of Steve Hilton call it.

That, then, is why it makes a difference whether Cameron is a two-term prime minister or not. If he lasts only four years, a revived Labour Party could resume the social democratic march that has been temporarily halted; if he makes it eight, Britain may look like a Conservative country again.

So what is likely to happen? That depends on how the main parties handle their internal divisions, in the new contexts of office and opposition.

The Tories have been fortunate in that their internal tensions have attracted little attention since the Great Grammar School Row of 2007. But that will not be so easy in government. Our ComRes poll today suggests a Tory majority of about 70. Brown, with a majority about that size, has still let rebels drive policy – remember Post Office privatisation? Neither do I. It disappeared from the legislative programme when Labour backbenchers flexed their muscles. Blair, with a majority more than twice as great, managed to win the critical vote on tuition fees by a margin of just five. On issues about which Tory MPs feel strongly – Europe, climate change, grammar schools – Cameron may be forced to trim. Above all, he faces the challenge of putting up taxes and cutting spending, and the party is bound to be torn between those that want the emphasis more on one than on the other.

The new intake of Tory MPs is conspicuous not for being a clone army of Cameroons, but for a flotilla of mavericks (Rory Stewart, Zac Goldsmith) in a sea of traditional Tories. David Davis, the former shadow home secretary who quit to tilt at the windmill of the Labour police state, is still hungrily prowling the corridors of Westminster. Outside the stockade, Boris Johnson's star is still rising, with an independent power base that in France would be regarded as a stepping stone to the premiership. Davis mutters about grammar schools; Johnson splutters about taxing bankers.

Labour faces a different challenge. Will it respond to defeat as it did in 1979, by going left? Or as the Tories did in 1997, by mouthing the platitudes of modernisation before running back to their core vote? Or will it adopt the Domino's Pizza strategy? Domino's in the US ran adverts last month featuring customers saying its products tasted "like cardboard", and saying that it had listened, learned and changed its recipe. That would require the party to keep the recriminations short. The Blairites will blame the Brownites for crashing their car; the Brownites will blame the Blairites for cutting the brake cables. But then they need to unite and move on to different policies for different times.

There are hopeful signs for Labour. As our political editor reported last Sunday, Jon Cruddas, the key figure on the left, is "increasingly likely to stand" for the leadership. That in itself is interesting, for Cruddas is a thoughtful and unifying leftwinger. But there is more. I am told that he is also open to the possibility of running as David Miliband's deputy.

Miliband is the bookies' favourite for next Labour leader, and is building alliances across the party, from James Purnell and Cruddas to Harriet Harman. (The really intriguing question about this month's attempted coup against Brown is what Harman was up to: did she want Brown's job for herself or for her unexpected new ally, the Foreign Secretary?)

Looking to the future always tempts wise heads to murmur about "events". But the impact of unexpected events is less important than how parties and party leaders respond to them. So this is the question that Labour ought to ask itself if it finds itself out of office on 7 May: who would be most likely to bring the party together and lead it back to power in 2014?

John Rentoul blogs at independent.co.uk/eagleeye

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Why it won’t be the i wot won it – our promise to you

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
A relative of dead Bangladeshi blogger Washiqur Rahman reacts after seeing his body at Dhaka Medical College in Dhaka on March 30,  

Atheists are being hacked to death in Bangladesh, and soon there will be none left

Rory Fenton
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor