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2010 General Election: a disastrous result?

Politics / No Comment / May 8, 2010

For the first time in 36 years, we have a hung Parliament. The Conservatives have 305 seats; Labour, 258; Liberal Democrats, 57; and others, 29, with one as yet undeclared. Is this a disaster? Not yet – although this political no-man’s land is certainly not where the Conservatives expected to be at this point.

A year ago the Tories were some 20% ahead of Labour in the opinion polls and, to many commentators, victory this year seemed virtually a foregone conclusion. The gap always narrows in the weeks before polling day but, even so, to have polled only 6% more than Labour suggests that their actual campaign, centred on The Big Society, failed to engage. It was only when David Cameron spoke frankly about  low taxes and immigration in the third TV debate that his messages began to gain traction.

Nick Clegg’s participation in the TV debates are, of course, what ignited ‘Cleggmania’. Speaking straight to camera of ‘the old parties’ in the first debate, he effectively usurped David Cameron’s central pitch as the agent of change and propelled the LibDems ahead of Labour in the opinion polls. On polling day, however, this failed to translate into the much-predicted electoral breakthrough; voters returned to Labour and the Tories and the LibDems secured only 23% of the popular vote.

Labour began the race trailing the Tories and failed to make any headway. Gordon Brown, to put it mildly, is not naturally telegenic like his opponents and could no longer escape his dismal economic and political record. His campaign was negative throughout and dismissing Gillian Duffy, a life-long Labour voter who accosted him on the campaign trail, as a ‘bigoted old woman’ once out of earshot – or so he thought – set the seal on  a disastrous campaign. It is all virtually the more remarkable, therefore, that Labour polled as much as 29%, although this is still their worst share of the vote since 1983.

So, what now? As the incumbent Prime Minister, Gordon Brown remains in Downing Street – for now. His plea yesterday to Nick Clegg to talk to him, should his talks with David Cameron fail, sounded a trifle desperate:

‘I would of course be prepared to discuss with Mr Clegg the areas where there may be some measure of agreement between our two parties.…there needs to be immediate legislation on [political reforms] to begin to restore the public trust in politics and, to improve Parliament’s standing and reputation, a fairer voting system is central.’

You can have anything you like, as long as I can remain in No. 10, he seemed to be saying.

Nick Clegg now finds himself cast as Kingmaker. Most of his party are closer ideologically to Labour than the Tories but the arithmetic means that working with Labour to keep the Tories out of government would be caricatured as forming a ‘coalition of losers’; it certainly would not make for a strong and stable government. It is also rumoured that Gordon Brown berated him by phone last night; if true, this would surely confirm that a deal with Gordon Brown remained Prime Minister was impossible.

Yesterday, had he gained a further 21 seats, David Cameron would have been to see the Queen and returned for the customary photo-call on the steps of No. 10 as the new Prime Minister. By now, he would have appointed his first Cabinet and taken calls of congratulation from other world leaders. Instead, he having to negotiating with Nick Clegg over terms for a possible coalition deal. Many in his party never truly took to him and are highly suspicious of any deal  that would involve proportional representation at elections.

This situation is not yet a national disaster. It has compelled politicians to try to build consensus – not that it usually lasts – and perhaps reminded them that they are, or should be, the servants of the people. What will turn it toxic, however, is the world beyond Westminster. Contagion from the insolvency of the Greek economy appears to be spreading and the markets will be impatient for a resolution of this political stalemate.

Should a government result that cannot, or will not, take the measures required to address the eye-watering deficit and debt mountain building behind it, therefore, the verdict of the currency speculators will be decisive  and damning. The Pound will plummet, interest rates will rise and debt-servicing costs with it, making an intervention by the IMF to administer the bitter medicine all but inevitable.

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