Prepare for tensions as election fever gathers pace

With fewer than 500 days until the general election, political junkies should expect the unexpected.

John Lehal: "Expect the unexpected."
John Lehal: "Expect the unexpected."

We enter 2014, the last full year before the general election, with under 500 days to go before a new Government takes office.

All three leaders feel greater job security than they did this time last year. A concerted effort by David Cameron with his backbenchers ended much leadership speculation. The Liberal Democrats saw Vince Cable’s ambitions implode at their conference, leaving Nick Clegg stronger. And with David Miliband safely out of the limelight, Ed Miliband has succeeded in putting Labour’s message on the cost of living at the forefront of the political landscape.

George Osborne’s three set pieces last year (Budget, CSR and Autumn Statement) saw the economy and his personal fortunes turn a corner. The recovery has begun to gather pace, with the Office of Budget Responsibility predicting that the economy will have grown by as much as 1.4 per cent in 2013. However, while the Government claims to have won the economic debate, the Chancellor will miss his own target to eradicate the deficit by at least three years. The real question this year is how the Government will combine its good news story around economic growth with justifying continued hardship in public spending.

Not everything is harmonious around the Cabinet table, and increasingly we will see both governing parties highlighting the gulf between them. Cameron’s claim to have a "little black book" of Conservative policies the Liberal Democrats had foiled is a sign of imminent battles on Europe, the welfare bill,  immigration and the environment.

Labour and UKIP will battle for first place in the local and European elections on 22 May. If UKIP tops the poll, I’d expect Cameron to face increased calls from anxious backbenchers to move further to the right and to let at-risk backbenchers enter electoral pacts with UKIP leader Nigel Farage. And on 14 September, Scottish voters will finally fulfil the SNP’s long-held ambition and decide on their future in the UK. Polling suggests the public will reject independence, but First Minister Alex Salmond cannot be underestimated, having pulled off surprise victories in the past.

Some of the most interesting political business this year will come from the backbenches. James Wharton’s bill on an EU referendum will undoubtedly be a pitched battle with both Labour and Liberal Democrats wanting to block the bill. Zac Goldsmith’s bill calling for the right to recall unscrupulous MPs will also return to the Commons. With recall elections being promised in the coalition agreement and the public clamouring for greater accountability in politics, party leaders will struggle to justify any decision not to back reform.

Regardless of the outcomes of these battles, by the end of this year there will be but months remaining for Britain’s first post-war coalition. Greater tension between the governing parties will be in evidence this year with more personal attacks, more policies leaked, and more media briefings. These are uncharted waters: expect the unexpected.

John Lehal is managing director of Insight Public Affairs

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