Fantasy Politics; Labour Holds on to Power in the General Election, just.David Cameron Survives an Attempted Coup.the Union Is Strengthened. and Gordon Brown Lands a Surprise New Job. James Macintyre Looks Back at 2010
Taylor, James, New Statesman (1996)
Who would have thought that 2010 would be the most dramatic year in British politics in a generation? It started, after all, with the Conservatives still riding high, 10 points ahead in the polls despite signs of a limited Labour revival. In January, the media consensus still pointed to a comfortable Tory victory, if not by landslide, then with a clear overall majority.
Labour's problems seemed to deepen when, as British soldiers continued to die in Afghanistan, Tony Blair appeared before the Chilcot inquiry into the Irag war. The panel focused on the 2002 memo from his foregin policy adviser David Manning, outlining the then prime minister's commitment to "regime change" Blair once more offered an impassioned "moral" case for Saddam Hussein"s removal but--as the country was again reminded of the inconsistencies behind the decision to invade--support for Labour fell below 30 per cent in the polls. Meanwhile, the Tories, who had supported the invasion, were flatlining in the late thirties and the Liberal Democrats, who had opposed it, rose surprisingly to the mid-twenties.
Emboldened, Nick Clegg chose the occasion of the Londan summit on Afghanistan, on 28 January, to call for troop withdrawal. In doing so, he spurned the private advise of paddy Ashdown, preferring to follow the example of Charles Kennedy, who had bravely stood against the Irag action seven years earlier.
As popular enthusiasm for his party increased, Clegg faced repeated questions over which way he would jump in the event of a hung parliament. At first, he stuck to the policy of "equidistance"' insisting that he would back whichever party had the most votes. However, as the election drew near, Lib Dem sources began to brief journalists that Labour was the party's more naturally.
Brown remained personally unpopular during the early months of the year but his confidence grew as it became clear that a group of disillusioned MPs led by Charles Clarke, would not rebel against his leadership. Rediscovering his ruthless streak, Brown incessantly highlighted David Cameron's proposed cut in inheritance tax for the country's 3,000 richest estates. The Conservation policy was reported to have divided the shadow cabinet, but Cameron defined calls for a U-turn and confirmed that a higher tax threshold would be a firm Tory manifesto pledge--to the delight of Labour strategists.
At the end of February, with the gap between the parties narrowing, Brown ruled out a 25 March election. The following month, Alistair Darling delivered Labour's boldest Budget since coming to office in 1997. Called the second People's Budget, after that of Lloyd George in the 1900, it placed those earning [pounds sterling] 100,000 or more in the 50 per cent income-tax bracket. It widened the divided between Labour and the Tories further by raising inheritance tax to 60 per cent for estates worth more than [pounds sterling] 1 m, in order to balance out extensive public expenditure cuts.
As Labour continued to shore up its support base, the Sun stepped up its vilification of Brown, focusing on his alleged "health" problems and at one point asking on its front page: "WOULD YOU TRUST THIS MAN WITH YOUR KIDS?" But the tactic backfired, as it had done with Brown's letter to parents of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and Rupert Mourdoch's most populist outlet found itself firmly on the wrong side of public opinion.
It was against this backdrop that Britain went to the polls on Thursday 6 May for the most closely fought election since 1992. By polling day, Labour had secured the support of only the Mirror, the Independent on Sunday and, in spite of internal divisions, the New Statesman. Exit polls on the BBC and ITV predicted a Tory victory of between 30 and 50 seats; only Sky News forecast a hung parliament.
It was all the more shocking, therefore, when the following morning it emerged that Labour had scraped through as the largest single party in parliament. …