Steve Richards: Here are a few predictions to keep you going until new year

The leaders’ debates will dominate the campaign, but they won’t change much

Thursday 24 December 2009 01:00

In order to predict the political future we turn to the past. There is no other guide. The future is a shapeless, uncertain place, full of vaguely defined possibilities and dangers. No one knows quite what it will be like until we get there.

So the coming election year is defined by the past. It is the only land we know. We pluck leaders out of the present and place them on more recognisable terrain. Is David Cameron close to Tony Blair in 1996, months away from an historic landslide victory, or is he closer to Neil Kinnock at the end of 1991, sensing victory, but not entirely sure that he has done enough to become Prime Minister in a few months' time? Perhaps the more precise parallel is with Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s, an opposition leader who seemed at times certain of power and at others far less convincing in her prime ministerial aspirations.

Is Gordon Brown closer to John Major at the end of 1991, a Prime Minister seeking to win a fourth term for his party in gloomy economic circumstances? Or is he the equivalent of Major in 1996, fearing a near wipe-out in an election he has to call within months?

The past allows us to ask questions and to place tumultuous events into context. But you will notice that there are no clear answers. The past invites us to places that appear to make sense of the present, when nothing really can.

This is not 1978, or 1991 or 1996. Cameron is not Thatcher or Blair. Brown is not a victorious Major or a vanquished Major. Politics does not repeat itself.

Cameron has studied Thatcher's rise to power as closely as he has sought to learn and copy the lessons of New Labour's victory in 1997, which perhaps explains the tonal inconsistencies in his pitch. There are echoes with both those distant eras. Thatcher faced a Labour government in the midst of an economic crisis. Blair opposed a long-serving administration that had become tired and demoralised. But the differences stand out more.

Raging inflation was the main challenge in the late 1970s. The Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, was more popular in the polls than Thatcher, although the Conservatives were ahead in the battle between the parties. Blair's rise took place during a period of heady optimism about the economy and over what a switch of government could bring about.

Belatedly Brown and his entourage have sought to discover some of the reasons why Major was successful in 1992. But he has left it very late. Again there are more differences. Major was a fresher political figure than Brown, virtually unknown before he became prime minister. Brown has been at the top of British politics since the late 1980s. Major faced Neil Kinnock who had been leader of the opposition for more than eight years, too long to remain convincing as an alternative prime minister. Brown has to deal with Cameron, who still exudes a certain novel vitality. But Brown is not John Major at the end of 1996 either. He does not lead a party so fatally divided and is not facing the equivalent of Blair, a figure who was viewed with near universal adulation.

The differences are more enlightening than the limited parallels. In opposition Blair and Thatcher came under more scrutiny than Cameron has experienced so far. This is because the focus has been almost solely on Labour and its wild behaviour since the last general election. The sequence is worth recalling if only as a reminder of the cover Cameron has enjoyed: the weekend after the 2005 election some Labour MPs called for Blair to stand down even though he had led them to victory. Soon afterwards there was the so-called "September coup" against Blair, an event that led to his enforced voluntary departure.

Next Labour entertained us with the "smooth transition" in which Brown wanted Blair out as soon as possible and Blair's allies sought to field a candidate against Brown. Then we had a leadership contest without a contest. After which we had a planned early election that was not called. Two attempted coups against Brown followed, along with a recession of intimidating magnitude. What a gift for a leader of the opposition. The Conservatives should be further ahead.

Another explosive difference now is that a political crisis accompanies the economic one. The saga over MPs' expenses has fuelled an already intense disillusionment with politics and the mainstream parties. Political parties are declining in front of our eyes with dangerously unpredictable long-term consequences. In the short term the voting patterns of the next election are likely to be even less uniform than usual as individual MPs are punished for their alleged misdemeanours.

The impact of the Liberal Democrats in such a context is hardest to predict. Nick Clegg plays the Westminster outsider with conviction partly because he means it. It is not clear whether electorally the Lib Dems will be part of a massive anti-Labour force, as the old Alliance became in the 1980s, or inadvertently remain part of an anti-Tory coalition as they became willingly in 1997. In their determined neutrality in relation to the other parties they are more of a wild card than in recent elections.

So what will happen in these unprecedented times? One safe prediction is that David Cameron and his party will come under more intense scrutiny than it has experienced so far. The optimists in the Cabinet, and there are a few of them, hope that once the political debate becomes more of a choice and less of a referendum on a long-serving government, the gap in the polls will narrow.

Are they correct? If Labour and the Liberal Democrats together can make George Osborne's post-election "emergency budget" seem like a threat rather than a reassuring prospect, my hunch is that a narrowing of the Tory lead is more likely than a further widening.

I do not expect the leaders' televised debates to change very much, although they will dominate the election campaign because of their novelty and the media's fascination of a media event. There will be no "gaffes" from Brown or Cameron in the debates but Clegg will be more vulnerable, unused to the intensity of such exposure. We will learn nothing new because by then there will be nothing left to learn.

Irrespective of the debates the smaller parties will not do as well as many fear or hope. The battle will be portrayed as a three-way contest from January and in the end that is how most voters will come to view it.

Gordon Brown will not face a leadership challenge in advance of the election. There is no alternative candidate and time has run out for the disparate insurrectionists. Labour's course is set with the proposals outlined in the pre-Budget report. Indeed they are set to such an extent there is no need for a pre-election budget, but there will be one before a May election. No doubt Brown would like to go earlier, but the polls are not good enough for him to contemplate the risk of an election during the cold, damp days of March.

What of the result? I do not underestimate Brown's resilient guile or the fragility of the Conservatives, but I note that since Cameron has been leader his party has been ahead in every poll apart from Brown's brief honeymoon. The past is a deceptive guide, but the polls are an increasingly accurate one.

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