This Thursday, May 7, should have been election day. Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, we should be casting our votes five years after David Cameron secured his majority in May 2015. Let’s suppose….
It has become known as “the predictable Parliament”, and not just because the law decreed when it would end. The tone was set by Andy Burnham’s unsurprising election as Labour Party leader in September 2015. A brief flurry of excitement fizzled out when Jeremy Corbyn’s early challenge failed. He could not persuade enough MPs to nominate him. We should thank, or blame, Margaret Beckett and Sadiq Khan. They resisted huge pressure to ensure a left-wing presence in the contest. Corbyn needed the signatures of 35 MPs to get on the ballot paper. He fell one short, and Burnham won the subsequent contest with ease.
Cameron’s first big challenge in the new Parliament was to hold, and win, a referendum on British membership of the European Union. His “new” settlement with the EU, unveiled in February 2016, contained only minor changes. The European Reform Group (ERG) on the Conservative right denounced the deal. So did Boris Johnson, believing he would be on the winning side.
He was wrong. His calculation was wrecked by Burnham’s decision to work actively for a “yes” vote. Campaigning hard in Labour’s northern heartlands, Labour’s new leader argued strongly that the EU was good for working class voters.
With the leaderships of both main parties on the same side and quietly co-ordinating their campaign tactics, the result was never in doubt. Johnson kept a low profile: he did not want to be the public face of a heavy defeat. Within hours of the polls closing on June 23, it became clear that almost 60 per cent of voters wanted the UK to stay in the EU.
Cameron emerged stronger than ever. Most voters breathed a collective sigh of relief that the EU controversy was finally over. Not Nigel Farage. He complained that the “yes” campaign had told dreadful lies. “We need a People’s Vote campaign to overturn this fraudulent result,” he told any journalist who would listen to him.
Finding little support for his new venture, he left for America to support Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency. Financially, Farage’s fees from Fox News replenished his bank balance, but politically his efforts proved counter-productive. When he appeared at the Republican convention in Cleveland, his reputation as a bad loser dented Trump’s own standing. The effect was not great but, in a close election, it may have tipped the result in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. On January 20, 2017, Hillary Clinton was inaugurated as America’s first woman president.
Cameron was delighted. He quickly established a close rapport with Clinton. In particular, they worked together on an ambitious new plan to fight global climate change. With British influence now restored in Brussels, the result was an EU-US carbon trading plan which went further than anything before. It required countries wishing to sell into the American and European markets to implement the plan themselves. After some tough haggling, Russia and China agreed. With them on board, every other major country followed. When Jair Bolsonaro, a climate change denier, stood for the presidency of Brazil, he was roundly defeated: voters feared that exclusion from its major export markets would ruin Brazil’s economy.
Early in 2019, Cameron announced that he would keep his promise to stand down as Prime Minister before the following election. Manoeuvring for the Conservative Party leadership got underway immediately. Pro- and anti- Brexit enthusiasts were quickly eliminated: most Tory MPs hated the idea of reviving the rows about Britain and the EU. The final two candidates, whose names went forward to the grassroots membership, were Boris Johnson and Theresa May, both of whom had said little during the 2016 referendum.
Early polls of party members showed May ahead. However, she ran a terrible campaign, repeating tired phrases such as “strong and stable”, failing to engage properly with party members, and giving faltering, evasive answers at televised hustings events. Johnson, in contrast, proved to be a warm, ebullient campaigner. He also dodged straight questions, but with panache. When the result was announced on July 23, Johnson had won by almost two-to-one.
Johnson swiftly set about reversing the austerity policies of the previous nine years. He wanted his premiership to be one of sunshine and optimism — and also fairness. On the day he became Prime Minister he spoke movingly on the steps of Downing Street. He promised to fight “the burning injustices” caused by deep inequalities. He addressed himself directly to voters who “just about manage. The government I lead will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”
As we all now know, the “predictable Parliament” has given us a late surprise. The coronavirus pandemic erupted before Johnson’s new policies had time to make a difference. The decision to postpone this week’s election was, in the end, uncontroversial. Labour helped to rush through Parliament the bill delaying it. The House of Commons and the House of Lords both approved the delay by large majorities.
In a way that consensus symbolises something fundamental about British politics these days. It has returned to the kind of competition not seen since the 1950s, when both main parties offered policies close to the ideological centre. Since 2015, both Labour and the Conservatives have rejected the manic enthusiasms of their more purist activists. Now only Johnson’s personality enlivens a rather dull party battle.
Time will tell whether this is good for the country. It is certainly not good for those of us who write about politics. We would prefer more excitement. What’s wrong with that? What harm could it do?