In May 2015 the voters of the United Kingdom (assuming such an entity still exists) will deliver their verdict on the current Government and choose the next one. After three decades of decisive majorities, the 2010 election marked a new shift into a more complex political scene in which no party seems ready to sweep to power.
For that reason, those preparing for 2015 need to consider all manner of outcomes. Seven seem plausible:
1. The Coalition rejected – Outright Labour win
2. Cameron the leader – Outright Conservative win
3 & 4. The Liberal Democrat deal-makers – Lib/Con coalition or Lib/Lab coalition
5. A new left wing coalition? – Labour/SNP/others in coalition
6 & 7. Going it alone – Labour/Conservative minority administration
1. The Coalition rejected
With a double-digit lead in the opinion polls, an electoral system stacked in its favour and the economy headed for modest growth at best, Ed Miliband’s Labour party might expect to be halfway down Downing Street by now. Indeed the bookies now make Labour the favourites to form the next government – although as we examine later in this document, the party’s lead in the polls is less than commanding at this stage of a Parliament.
However, Mr Miliband’s credentials as a Prime Minister-in-waiting are not universally accepted: according to Ipsos MORI, by January 2013 he had crept to a -12% overall satisfaction rating, which put him ahead of his rival party leaders but hardly suggests a nation desperate to see him in Number 10.
It is the Labour leader’s personal profile, along with that of his Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, which the Tories will look to pick away at as the election comes closer. By holding up the prospect of Britain waking up under Prime Minister Miliband, the supposed disloyal brother and puppet of the Trade Unions, the Conservatives will look to chip away at voter confidence in Labour. His 2012 conference speech went some way towards ‘normalising’ him, but his skills and credibility as a leader will be under near-constant media scrutiny as 2015 approaches.
Labour will be looking to stand up to this assault and present itself as a credible government in waiting. As it develops a platform for the next election, the challenge for the party, one which it has historically struggled to pull off, is to appear financially competent as well as socially fair.
2. Cameron the leader
2015 will see the larger coalition partner seeking a mandate to run a majority government. Such an outcome seems entirely possible if Liberal Democrat voters feel let down but Labour seems unelectable.
However, David Cameron’s route to a full-blown mandate looks strewn with hazards. He will know that a second failure to win a proper majority could prove fatal to his leadership of the party.
What seems clear is that an appeal to the Conservative base is not likely to succeed. Some Tories may be tempted to promise voters that the Coalition’s record would have been much more true blue without Liberal Democrat influence and that a ‘pure’ Tory government is now on offer. Centre ground voters, though, failed to endorse that vision in 2010 and there is no strong reason to think they will do so this time around.
While Mr Cameron will want to shore up perceptions of the Tories as the fiscally responsible, law and order party, he should be wary of pandering to the Right with aggressive tax and spending cuts or too obsessive a focus on Europe.
His policy on renegotiation of European treaties followed by a referendum serves the dual purpose of winning votes from Eurosceptics but also quieting some of his own party.
So the challenge for the Conservatives is to generate a fresh plan for the country and a convincing version of progress. After the grim-but-determined face of 2010, Mr Cameron must now present a compelling vision of how the country can emerge from austerity stronger and brighter.
3 & 4. The Liberal Democrat deal-makers
Should the British electorate again fail to deliver a decisive verdict, the Liberal Democrats will once more be looked to in order to form a government. From comments by Simon Hughes at their 2012 conference, it seems clear the party is already contemplating a future coalition either with the Conservatives or Labour. After five years of partnership with the Tories, an extension would clearly be preferable to returning to opposition, although many party members would prefer to see themselves in alliance with Labour.
Nick Clegg’s strategic challenge is therefore to shape the set of policies which gives the Lib Dems the biggest impact in another coalition while not closing the door on either party.
The Lib Dems will not enter negotiations with the same ‘red lines’ as they adopted in 2010. After the lost referendum, the voting system remains unchanged and unlikely to face further attention. Reform of the House of Lords may come back on the agenda, but such issues, while important to the party faithful, are not ones with mainstream political appeal. An Ipsos MORI poll last year found that 72% of British adults agreed with the statement “I support reforming the House of Lords, but there are more important things that the Government should be concentrating on at the moment”.
Consequently it may be that the major Lib Dem objectives in a coalition – both positive ideas and things they will implacably oppose – are social, environmental or economic in character. Selling out on a policy like tuition fees this time around seems utterly unthinkable. It could be that protection for civil liberties, already a behind-the-scenes area of tension in this Government, becomes the basis for a Liberal Democrat settlement with one of the other two parties.
5. A new left wing coalition?
Westminster-watchers are easily fooled into believing the last two years have seen the flowering of a three party system. In fact there is another party in power in Britain. The Scottish National Party has slowly established itself as something approaching a natural party of government north of the border.
In the event of a ‘no’ vote in the independence referendum, the SNP’s primary reason for existence in the Westminster setting will be snuffed out. But its track record as a competent social democratic party might just point the way to a new purpose on the British scene.
A handful of Scottish Nationalist MPs – perhaps even with Plaid Cymru and Green MPs similarly falling in – could make the weight necessary for a broad-left coalition. Such a volatile combination would not be an obvious first choice for those seeking a stable government and the SNP would likely look for leverage on some future push for detatchment from the UK, which would make their involvement even more problematic. But it is not entirely implausible that they might play a hand in governing in Westminster as well as Holyrood. An equivalent right-leaning coalition, meanwhile, with maybe a future UKIP MP and Ulster representation, seems too far-fetched a prospect to contemplate.
6 & 7. Going it alone
If, as seems entirely possible, either Labour or the Conservatives fall just short of an overall majority, they may not rush to form a formal coalition, but rather seek to maintain a minority government for at least some of the period up to 2020. A ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with any party, whether the Lib Dems, SNP or one of the Northern Ireland parties, could see the Government through budget votes and other crucial moments.
The danger of governing in this way would be the instability that comes with trying to rule without the certainty that Parliament can deliver the legislation the Government wants, and the resulting Ministerial time wasted negotiating inside Westminster. Moreover, in the current climate, the perception of instability in the UK political system might be considered too dangerous. One of the major reasons David Cameron felt under pressure to resolve the outcome of the 2010 election was that the UK’s credit rating would be put under threat and its cost of borrowing rapidly increased if no solid-looking arrangement could be put in place.
Such an arrangement would place even more pressure on the leadership skills of Mr Cameron or Mr Miliband, and force either man to tone down their ideal programme for government while strengthening the hand of the Opposition. However, a minority government cannot be ruled out. The two leaders may indeed view such an outcome as a stepping stone to something more permanent, although the Fixed Term Parliaments Act makes a snap election more difficult to manage.