What the future holds for politics – the Peter Mandelson Memorial Dim Sum Supper forecast

The annual political predictions dinner party is back for another round of fortune-telling

John Rentoul
Saturday 10 December 2022 14:21 GMT
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The next general election will be in October 2024. That was one of the few predictions on which this year’s Peter Mandelson Memorial Dim Sum Supper could agree.

This annual exercise in futurology began on 23 December 1998, when a group of friends and I were dining at a Chinese restaurant in Soho and news reached us – by pager, it was so long ago – that Mandelson had resigned as trade secretary. By coincidence, the same group of friends was lunching on 24 January 2001 when Mandelson resigned again, this time as Northern Ireland secretary.

Since then, we have gathered just before or after the new year to make predictions about what we think is going to happen in politics. Most of our forecasts are as accurate as the Office for Budget Responsibility’s, but they provide a way of taking stock.

We thought we were mainly amusing ourselves – and readers of The Independent, where the minutes of our meetings were recorded – but it turned out that our proceedings were followed by David Cameron when he was prime minister. (That might have been his way of boasting about winning the 2015 election against the expectations of most journalists.)

Anyway, this week we were back. As ever, we proved that we are modernisers, not hidebound by convention. We dispensed with the traditional preliminary, which involves processing around the table, flagellating ourselves with napkins, berating ourselves for having got things so wrong the previous year. Instead, we raised our glasses to celebrate our having missed a year – which was just as well, because nobody could have predicted politics in 2022.

Without having to waste time marking the previous year’s predictions, we were able to get straight down to business. The first question is one that I understand has been discussed by Keir Starmer and his advisers, who reached a similar conclusion. Rishi Sunak’s preference would be to hold the next election in the summer of 2024, but the economic cycle is likely to make him delay. On the other hand, he won’t want to go for the latest possible date, in January 2025, because that would be to have an election in the cold and dark for no good reason except that he had run out of time. Hence October 2024, after a five-week campaign starting in September.

The big question, though, is what is going to happen in that election. Here the supper guests diverged sharply. My view is that Labour are unlikely to do as well as they did in 1997 and that, although the Conservatives are in deep trouble, their situation is not as bad as it was against Tony Blair. Therefore, Labour is unlikely to win by a 13 percentage-point margin in share of the vote, which is what Blair did, and this more or less rules out a Labour majority.

Because Labour has lost Scotland, and the Labour vote in England piles up increasingly in safe urban seats, the margin of Blair’s victory would now produce a hung parliament, with Labour just short of a majority. All the same, a stubborn minority of the dim sum diners persisted in the view that Starmer would emerge from the next election at the head of a majority Labour government. Their view was that, whatever Sunak’s qualities, the Tory party is divided and useless, while Starmer is ruthless and “not distracted by ‘ideas’”.

What was perhaps more surprising was that most of the assembled company predicted that Sunak would be returned with a reduced majority. There were no takers for a hung parliament at all, even though such scenarios were discussed at length. The leader of the minority view said: “I don’t know what you are playing at.” But the rest of us argued that the economy would turn and that, when it comes to a choice between Starmer and Sunak as leaders of alternative governments, the vote would be close. The Conservatives need to be only a point or two ahead to cling on, while anything short of a majority means Starmer as prime minister of a minority government, because even the Democratic Unionist Party might not prop up a Tory government next time.

Next we had to predict whether Jeremy Corbyn would stand in Islington North. The minority view was that he would stand as an independent and lose, while the majority thought he wouldn’t stand. There was a similar division of opinion about David Miliband: on a show of hands, we thought he would not be a candidate next time.

The final prediction about the next election, on which we agreed, was that the pro-independence parties, the SNP and the Greens, would fail to win more than 50 per cent of the vote in Scotland (they won 46 per cent last time), thereby spiking Nicola Sturgeon’s attempt to claim the election as a proxy referendum on separatism. We also unanimously predicted that she would stand down as SNP leader after the election. Kate Forbes was mentioned as a possible successor, but no one was bold enough to make an actual prediction.

We paused at this point to toast Stephen Flynn in thanks for answering the question we would otherwise have faced, of who was likely to succeed Ian Blackford as the SNP Commons leader.

There was a brief discussion about who would be the next leaders of the two main parties, complicated by the divergence of views about the outcome of the next election. There was some support for the idea that, whichever party lost the election, it might keep the current leader.

In order to try to force some clarity, I asked who would replace Sunak or Starmer if they suddenly became, in the delicate words of the Labour Party constitution, “permanently unavailable”. For the Tories, Kemi Badenoch emerged from a field including Penny Mordaunt, Boris Johnson, Ben Wallace and Suella Braverman – a field that “tells you the Tories are headed for opposition”, according to one of our number. For Labour, Angela Rayner came out ahead of Rachel Reeves, Wes Streeting, Lisa Nandy, Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan.

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We were now short of time for the foreign affairs section of business, as the macaroons and green tea had arrived. There was unanimity that Donald Trump would pull out of the 2024 US presidential election before the primaries, and the majority thought that Ron DeSantis was likely to be the Republican candidate, although Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo were also mentioned.

On the Democratic side, the majority thought that Joe Biden would run again, in which case he would be the candidate, but a minority thought that his health would force him out and that Michelle Obama, Gavin Newsom or Pete Buttigieg would take his place – although the general view was that DeSantis would beat any of them.

One of the guests demanded a prediction for who would succeed Emmanuel Macron in France in 2027, when he will have to stand down after the two-term limit that was brought in in 2008. Bruno Le Maire, Macron’s finance minister, was mentioned, but the prediction was ruled out of order as being too far into the future. Owing to the dim sum supper’s complex procedural rules – namely the presentation of the bill – a question about how long Vladimir Putin would be president of Russia fell by the wayside.

As we dispersed into the frosty night, solemn undertakings were made to meet again in a year’s time to see how different the world looks then.

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