Things aren’t going well for the Westminster political machine. Their short-term, focus-group and opinion poll led campaigning has missed or ignored the changing mood of voters. Things were bad enough with the rise of Ukip; they got a lot worse with the Yes-surge among former Labour supporters in Scotland. At this week’s Labour conference the party is desperately trying to get the political agenda back to familiar territory. It is failing, and in doing so it is losing the political initiative. In this unfamiliar political territory I want to indulge in a bit a bit of political fantasy. But ask yourself: just how unrealistic is it?
Roll forward to May 8, 2015, the day after Britain’s General Election. The Westminster parties lost control of the election agenda. In England Ukip have surged forward to take 30 seats, taking votes from all sides. In Scotland, angry and unreconciled Yes voters have moved in behind the SNP, who take another 30 seats. The Lib Dems, through a lot of hard local campaigning, luck with voter splits, and a dead-cat bounce, are relieved to end up with another 30 seats (a bit over half their 2010 tally). The Greens do well in national polling, though only pick up a small handful of seats. The Tories are the main victim of the changed situation in England, losing seats directly to Ukip, but also to Labour. They fall back by 40 seats to between 260 and 270. But Labour’s gains in England are partly neutralised by the advance of the SNP in Scotland. They end up with a very similar number of teats to the Conservatives, with a net 15-20 gains.
Both main parties are badly bruised: their share of votes has fallen; they are not in control of the political agenda. Only the inherent electoral bias towards incumbency has left them with so many seats. Both feel as if they have lost. And the parliamentary arithmetic is horrid. To form any kind of stable coalition government with smaller parties they will need to round up two of the Lib Dems, Ukip and SNP. For different reasons none of these parties want to play ball. For the Lib Dems it is a moment of reckoning, with open revolt against the party leadership, and a desperate feeling amongst the membership that they need to rebuild in opposition. Ukip are too toxic for the main parties, and their terms of engagement are too high. The SNP have no interest in the governance of the UK as a whole. If there is no natural governing majority, there is a comfortable and motivated opposition majority against any government led by one of the two main parties.
Meanwhile the fiscal deficit and the national debt remain large. The financial markets are jittery, which puts the financing of the deficit in question. The pound takes a tumble. With its yawning current account deficit Britain needs foreign financing. But this in turn requires a strong government able to keep the fiscal deficit in hand. The fragile recovery is in jeopardy, as investment is drying up, and property prices start to fall, as foreign investors take fright. The Treasury civil servants are worried and quickly set to work on their political contacts.
There is an obvious solution. One that has been tried in Germany, Austria and Greece. A Grand Coalition between the Conservatives and Labour. It slowly dawns on the senior figures in these parties that this is the only way out.
What would be the organising principle of the new Coalition? As Labour realises that it is no longer practical to use its Scottish MPs to ram through reforms of English public services, they are at last able to contemplate some form of new federal settlement for the UK. They also accept that the UK’s relationship with the European Union needs to be reset. Both sides agree to a Constitutional Convention. The idea is that this will come up with one or more referendum propositions in Autumn 2017, after which the country will move towards a new General Election. All this will secure the Conservative participation in the government. In return Labour will insist on a choice selection of its core policies: halting “privatisation” of the NHS (though not wholesale unpicking of the previous coalition’s reforms); perhaps the freeze on energy prices and reform of energy markets; maybe further rises tot he minimum wage; surely the reinstatement, in some form, of the 50p top tax rate and termination of the “bedroom tax”. Their proposed Mansion Tax is unlikely to make it though – such a significant change to the tax system hardly seems appropriate in a time of constitutional transition. Both sides will agree to something tokenistic on immigration.
But who will lead this government? Both Party leaders will face revolts from their own side. Mr Cameron will surely find his position untenable. Mr Miliband may even have lost his seat to the surging Ukip. The natural thing would be for the Prime Minister to come from whichever party is a nose in front in parliamentary seats. The popular vote can be used as a tie-breaker. The other party will no doubt insist on the Treasury.
On the Tory side, the obvious choice would have been William Hague. But he is stepping down at the next election. Other senior figures are: Theresa May, George Osborne or Boris Johnson. Ms May stands the best chance of these, though she does not come across as a particularly gifted politician. The other two are surely too blatantly political to be trusted enough by Labour. Another idea is to summon up a former senior figure from the back benches; Malcolm Rifkind would be an obvious candidate.
It is even harder to think of Labour candidates with the appropriate stature. Harriet Harman has the seniority, but I can’t see her as having enough clout. I’m not even sure if Margaret Beckett will be standing, and she is a bit old at 71 – though since this is something of a caretaker role, that is less of an obstacle than it might be. The existing front bench all seem to be lacking to some degree. Gordon Brown’s reputation may have been enhanced by his intervention in the referendum campaign, but there is no way that he can lead a coalition. Meanwhile Alistair Darling’s reputation has been diminished.
Is there a serious point to this fantastical speculation? Yes. As we see the rise of anti-politics, of political parties who are only interested in causing trouble, and not solving problems, then we must get used to the idea that previously bitter opponents will have to cooperate in government. The current coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats may be foreshadowing the future of politics in ways that the current political chattering classes don’t yet understand.