The British electorate is being offered a choice between bad leadership and weak leadership, if they choose between the two biggest parties at the General Election in May 2015. This is a turn-up for Labour's Ed Miliband. While he still appears weak, the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, had been seen as a sensible and competent leader. But Mr Cameron is now putting that at risk.
Mr Cameron, over the last month or so has put his name to a series highly unstatesmanlike moves. Let's list them:
- He offered the public about £8bn of tax cuts in the next parliament, while at the same time closing the budget deficit. The only way this works is through savage cuts to benefits and public services. Most observers think it is completely infeasible. He has also through in the prospect of cutting Inheritance Tax, a tax which must be one of the most economically efficient.
- He, or rather his party, launched an attack on the Human Rights Act, which amongst other things, makes decisions by British courts and Parliament open to challenge by the European Court on Human Rights. This is more headline grabbing, and an attack on a perfectly sensible piece of legislation. This was supported by a suggestion that the basic human rights set out in the European Declaration were subject to some unspecified "responsibilities" - which shows a complete failure to understand what this declaration is trying to do. Many Conservatives were horrified.
- As soon as the referendum on Scottish independence was declared, he launch a bid for "English Votes for English Laws", a suggestion that there was some sort of quick fix that would prevent Scottish MPs from voting on matters that affected just England. This was another stunt, designed to deflect calls for a more considered approach to UK's fraying constitution, through a constitutional convention. Many serious commentators feel that this direction of travel could only lead to the breakup of the UK.
- More recently Mr Cameron has suggested that he can renegotiate the country's membership of the European Union so as to limit the level of immigration from EU countries into the UK. This means unpicking the core treaties that form the EU, and implementation would surely mean referendums in other EU countries and opening a Pandora's Box. It is far from clear that excessive immigration from other EU countries is a serious problem for the UK - though there are abuses, which are open to less drastic solutions. This looks like another undeliverable promise, which takes the country one step closer to leaving the EU.
What do these ideas have in common, apart from being reckless political stunts? They play well to the agenda promoted by right-wing tabloid newspapers, like the working-class Sun and the middle-class Daily Mail. And they also play well amongst voters who are tempted to vote for Ukip, the insurgent populist party that is polling so well currently. Ukip have taken one seat off the Tories, Clacton, in a by-election following a defection, with an overwhelming margin. The Tories face a much tighter contest from another defector in Rochester and Strood - where polls still put Ukip in the lead.
So Mr Cameron is facing up to the clear threat from Ukip by appeasing their sympathisers. This stands in clear contrast to Mr Miliband and Labour. Labour have their own problems from Ukip, who are popular amongst white blue-collar voters, that used be part of Labour's bedrock. Indeed the party came within a whisker of losing their own by-election to Ukip in Heywood & Middleton, in Greater Manchester. Their response to each of the four challenges by Mr Cameron has been muted. But they have stood firm - and not followed Mr Cameron's race to the bottom. Labour politicians even offered some robust defence of the Human Rights Act. Perhaps they sense an opportunity. Labour are not exactly squaring up to Ukip, but they aren't appeasing them either, apart from offering an apology for allowing Polish migrants in in the early , which is at best insincere and at worst economically illiterate.
Over the past couple of years Ukip have hijacked the political agenda, with a constant focus on immigration and the EU in the news media. They have had a good run, topping the poll in May's elections to the European Parliament, held under proportional representation. But this may be provoking a backlash. Polls tracking whether Britons would vote to leave the EU in a referendum have showing a growing proportion of people preferring to stay in, and they are now a comfortable majority. Perhaps people will tire too of the arguments over immigration, as they start to appreciate its complexities. The Economist published an interesting article suggesting that Ukip's credibility is weak. Amongst other evidence it published a poll showing that more than 50% of people agreeing with the statement that "Ukip are a protest party with no realistic policies", while 20% disagreed. Mr Cameron is fishing in a smaller pool than many in the press suppose.
If Labour spy an opportunity, it is that the public remains concerned about the standard of public services, and especially about the NHS. It could be that the Conservative promise of tax cuts will come back to haunt them. Today Simon Stevens, the new chief executive of NHS England, said that the NHS needed an extra £8bn of funding on top of inflation. Now Mr Stevens is no trade-union appointee, and is promoting radical reform of the NHS, including the openness to private and third sector providers that is being viciously attacked by the left. His plea for more funding is surely incompatible with the Tory promise on tax cuts. And yet it looks like the sensible centre, not the usual left wing ranting.
And here is the Conservative weakness. They are abandoning the political centre for a strain of populism that does not stand up to close scrutiny. Protest politics is not a viable route to power. As sensible, politically uncommitted commentators point out the flaws in Conservative plans, opinion-formers will turn against the party. And then some of its own members will voice doubts. Those of us with long memories remember something like this happening to the Labour Party in 1983. Its then leader, Michael Foot, pandered to a surge of left-wing populism in his party. Its manifesto in the election of that year was dubbed "the longest suicide note in history", and resulted in the party's worst election performance in living memory. Are the Conservatives going down the same path?
This seems fanciful. After all politics is much more professional these days, based on extensive polling, and carefully chosen "wedge" issues. And Mr Cameron's core stance on Europe remains a popular one - those polls showing increased support for the EU do not undermine what he is trying to do there. But the real reason that Mr Cameron is veering off to the populist right is because that is what most of his own party wants. It isn't a careful piece of political triangulation, it is force of political circumstance. To do anything else would cause a fatal backlash in his own ranks. That is a predicament he shares with Michael Foot in 1983.