The return after the summer recess will signal the beginning of the run-up to the general election, which, thanks to fixed-term parliaments, we know will take place on the 7th May 2015.1 So how are the party leaders faring at this crucial point in the electoral cycle?
At long last, the economy appears to be moving in the right direction, which is central to Cameron’s message that the Conservatives are a responsible party of government and are well on the way to cleaning up the mess left by Labour. I expect he will play on this theme until election day.
Of course, potential disaster still looms around the corner in a number of ways. The economy could slip back into recession, interest rates could suddenly rise (though I don’t expect them to soar above 1.5% by May) and the woes of our largest trading partner - Europe - could continue. The recovery is also unevenly spread, with pensioners coming out on top whilst young people suffer, but that’s probably the most favourable way round for the Conservatives.
Poor Ed still has an image problem, to the extent that he felt it necessary to send himself up and try ‘to make a virtue out of his failure to connect with voters.’2 Whilst I appreciate his point that principles are important, I’m not sure that drawing attention to his poor public image is a sensible strategy. Some politicians can get away with self-deprecation, but that option doesn’t work well when you’re the leader of a major political party and a potential future prime minister.
The opinion polls also do not bode well for Miliband. Whilst most polls put Labour a few points ahead of the Conservatives - though not as far as they should be if they want to win the next election - his personal ratings continue to tumble. I don’t place much faith in any single poll, as it’s simply a snapshot at a given point in time which can easily be affected by a good or bad news story that week, but a continuing trend of negative and falling ratings should be cause for concern. It’s far too late to change leaders now, but if Labour fail to form part of the next government then their first move after the election should be to offer Miliband the option to jump before he is pushed.
Calamity Clegg has been living up to his nickname recently, with local and European election results wiping out huge swathes of Lib Dem councillors and MEPs. Unfortunately, as the junior partner in the coalition, Clegg gets most of the blame and little if any of the credit, even though some popular policies (e.g. raising the personal allowance) originally came from his party. I’m also not convinced that the message of ‘we stopped some of the worst Tory policies’ will play well with the electorate, especially as it’s a difficult claim to prove.
The big question is whether voters will want to continue to punish Clegg and his party for the unpopular decisions taken by the coalition and the about-turn on tuition fees. Iain Dale thinks the party will hold on to 30-35 seats,3 which would be the party’s worst performance since 1992, whereas the New Statesman thinks that ‘wipeout is a realistic prospect’.4 I’m more inclined towards the former estimate, as I think the Lib Dems still have a core of support which will enable them to retain at least 20 safe(ish) seats.
The one thing that could throw a spanner into the works for all three party leaders is the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. Whilst the polls have consistently suggested a ‘no’ vote will prevail - albeit by varying margins - a victory for the independence movement could cause real problems for Miliband. Labour has 40 MPs in Scotland, whereas the Conservatives only have one,5 so an independent Scotland would make it much more difficult for Labour to win a majority in the remainder of the UK. This also raises the interesting question of what would happen if Scotland did vote for independence, but this did not take effect until after the next general election. In such a situation it would be possible for Labour to win a majority at the election and suddenly find themselves in a minority government once independence was fully operational. Would they hand over the reigns of power to the Conservatives, form a coalition, or call another general election? Something to ponder for the next two months.