by Kevin Meagher
A mug’s game and a fool’s errand, but in the spirit of offering hostages to fortune, making rash and arbitrary predictions and being willing to be hoist by my own petard, please find my political predictions for 2012:
1. “With this pact I thee wed…”
This will be the year that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats finally face up to the indisputable logic of a pre-election pact. Like a couple who have lived together for years, there is little reason to hold off from tying the knot – sooner or later they will realise this. They get on better than either side initially expected. Their candidates go into the next election with a joint record. The two parties’ fortunes are now symbiotic so there is no point manufacturing differences.
For ambitious Lib Dems, carrying on with the coalition is their best shot at retaining a ministerial career. For Cameron, Lib Dem ballast gives his government a better equilibrium, ensuring he doesn’t have to try too hard to please his right flank.
Austerity is going to stretch into the next parliament. Both sides can sell the deal as a continuation of “acting in the national interest”. Brutally, the number of marginal seats where the Tories are the main challengers to them would see off half the Lib Dems current 57 MPs. So logical and self-interested then; but will this convince both parties’ grassroots?
2. A shuffling of the pack
2012 will see a significant cabinet reshuffle. Commendably, David Cameron is proving a reluctant butcher. By the spring, however, he will want to freshen up the cabinet’s middle ranks, probably waiting until after May’s local elections. At the very least, Clarke, Spelman, Gillan and Warsi are all expendable. If Boris beats Ken for the London mayoralty, he can risk promoting a generation of Cameroons. If Ken wins, then he will have to defer to his party’s backbenches, something he clearly despises doing. Were the blonde bombshell to bomb, Cameron would do well to offer him a peerage and a cabinet seat – in the sure hope that he will turn the offer down. A display of hubris from a losing candidate would scrub the remaining gloss off the Boris phenomenon.
3. Braveheart Alex’s single shot
2012 will be the year that the SNP juggernaut blows a tyre. Of course that should properly read the Alex Salmond juggernaut. Without him, the SNP is just a collection of cranks and lightweights. He is the quintessential big fish in a small loch. A great, grinning predator devouring the small fry of provincial Scottish politics.
This year he has seen off the leaders of the Labour, Tory and Liberal parties’ Caledonian franchises. He should savour the moment though. 2012 is the year he has to put up or shut up as he decides the timing of his referendum on independence. For like a bee’s sting, it can only be used once.
2012 is the year he will begin sweating that the more he dances to Whitehall’s tune on cuts, the less appetising he – and by extension, his argument – will become.
4. Mayors and police commissioners – and possible by-elections?
This May sees 11 referendums held in our big cities over whether to switch to an elected mayor. The department of communities and local government reckons eight will vote to change, but these are bureaucrats speaking. Four is a more realistic number. The parochialism of local councillors – particularly Labour it has to be said – will kill off the others. A far surer bet is that we will get 41 new police and crime commissioners in November.
With Alun Michael announcing yesterday that he is set to quit the Commons to contest the South Wales police commissionership, Westminster watchers will be eyeing up how many of his colleagues are tempted to follow suit. December 2012 by-elections anyone?
5. Nazis in receivership
2012 will be the year the BNP goes out of business. Caught in a pincer movement between the marginally more respectable UKIP and the considerably more energetic EDL, the BNP will recognise that it has no clear purpose any more. It’s insurgency into local government was long ago arrested. Weighed down by legal challenges, debts and internal splits, the BNP has no future. As he sits there in his bunker, surveying the wreckage of his tin-pot empire, Nick Griffin will have to accept that fascism ain’t what it used to be.
6. The future’s not Orange any more
This year will also see the demise of the Ulster Unionist party. Having (mis)governed Northern Ireland continuously between 1922 and 1972, the UUP has suffered a catastrophic decline in recent years. Now without a single MP in Westminster, the UUP has had to sit there, green with jealousy, as Peter Robinson’s Democratic Unionists – once their poor evangelical relations – replace them as the indisputable voice of mainstream unionism. So demoralised are the UUPs troops that they themselves are calling for the party to be disbanded.
7. Boundary review, reviewed
Something else that will bite the dust in 2012 is the parliamentary boundary review. This was a rash promise by Cameron to slash 50 seats in order to “reduce the cost of politics” at the height of Westminster’s expenses scandal. The figure was entirely arbitrary, so the new proposed boundaries are a dog’s breakfast. And the electoral advantage the Tories confidently predicted is not looking as attractive as first thought.
The seats of six cabinet ministers would be axed, including Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam seat and George Osborne’s berth in leafy Knutsford. The last election was fought on fresh boundaries so there is, technically, no need to fiddle again for a decade. Eventually the government’s political antennae will twitch and the whole thing will be dropped. There is too much political fixing needed to keep everyone happy. The government has better things to worry about.
8. Ken to beat Boris
It is not currently fashionable to believe that the old newt fancier will triumph in May’s London mayoral race. Boris leads most polls and there is a powerful sense of deja vu from 2008’s defeat. But Ken became the first – and only – individual to win what amounts to a national election when he first won the mayoralty in 2000. He can never be written off.
9. Which is more expendable – a bill or a minister?
In politics, timing is everything. So far, so cliché, but what this means for prime ministers is that they should try and do the hard stuff first. Get the grief out of the way early-on in the parliament, then settle back and do the easier and more popular things. Approaching government in this order is an optical illusion; making it look that prime ministers are actually getting better at the job.
One issue the government was hoping to deal with early on was Andrew Lansley’s health bill. This definitely ranks in the difficult, awkward and unpopular category. The word “necessary” is usually added at this point. But the Lansley upheavals aren’t.
Like the slain backpacker in American Werewolf in London, the beleaguered health secretary keeps appearing in the prime minister’s mirror, a grotesque reminder to Cameron of his failure to get to grips with the bill’s noxious politics. Never has the claim “they’re destroying the NHS” been so apt. Anxious to settle into the next phase of his premiership, David Cameron will calculate whether to drop the bill – or Lansley.
10. Pain delayed…
The Iraq inquiry has now finished its evidence-gathering phase and is set to report this summer. As Sir John Chilcott’s remit was to “identify the lessons that can be learned” from the Iraq war, we can take it as read there will be criticisms a-plenty.
“Module one” of the Leveson Inquiry, which covers phone-hacking and the relationship between the press and the public, should be concluded by November, with the other strands of the inquiry – into the relationships between the press, police and politicians – coming later. Like The Mouse Trap, this show will run and run through 2012 and beyond.
Bloody Sunday will return this year. Northern Ireland’s public prosecution service has yet to decide whether any of the soldiers found to have lied on oath during Lord Saville’s inquiry into the murder of 14 Derry civil rights demonstrators by British paratroops back in 1972 will now face perjury charges. They will soon have to make an announcement.
Meanwhile, Sir Desmond De Silva’s review of the murder of Belfast civil rights lawyer, Pat Fiuncane, will report in December. His remit is to provide a “full public account” of any involvement by British military and intelligence assets in the targeting, assassination and cover-up. Two previous inquiries found that collusion between British state agencies and loyalist paramilitaries did take place. Having watered-down a previous commitment to launch a full public inquiry, the prime minister will be left with a very messy problem if De Silva concurs with them.
So there we are, my random and all-too-disputable crystal ball gazing for the year ahead.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.