2010 began with an attempted coup against the prime minster and ended with riots in Parliament Square. Ian Dunt reports on a cataclysmic year in British politics.
This is the first part of a special two-part feature - come back tomorrow for our concluding feature analysing election year 2010
It was snowing, the sort of snow you want, and rarely get, at Christmas. Lobby hacks were trudging back to the Commons after the festive break. It was January 6th, and the first PMQs of the year was about to take place. It turned out rather well, as it goes. Gordon Brown did his big clunking fists thing, temporarily overpowering David Cameron's chipper abuse. And then, as it was ending, we heard some strange news. Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt had tried to spark a leadership coup.
That's how 2010 started. It was a sign of things to come. Even with the financial crisis and MPs' expenses in the rear-view mirror, this was a cataclysmic 12 months in British politics. It began with a startlingly late attempt to get rid of the prime minister. It ended with riots in Parliament Square, damp red smoke rising above Big Ben as the Liberal Democrats voted for a rise in tuition fees.
The remarkable thing about the snow plot was how late it came. We had presumed that the window of opportunity for a coup attempt had passed and any further effort now would be self-defeating. As it turned out, Labour MPs agreed with us. Regardless of how much they distrusted Brown, the Hoon-Hewitt plot was pure madness. They spent the day in parliament, absurdly telling journalists that they had no particular opinion on his leadership but were trying to have a 'discussion'. For these two former Cabinet secretaries, it was a horrible start to a year that would, for them, only get worse.
Having survived this early attempt to get rid of him, Brown lumbered up for the long, slow election campaign of 2010. He knew it would be May 6th. We knew it would be May 6th. Even our mothers knew. But, for some bizarre reason, Brown chose not to confirm it. Perhaps it was too distressing to give up this last vestige of power. Perhaps there was still a chance of tripping up Cameron. Either way, the worst kept secret in Westminster stayed a secret all the way into April.
It began well. By the time of the next PMQs, on the 13th, Brown was mocking Cameron for using an airbrushed picture of himself on an election poster. It chimed well with voters' suspicion of the telegenic leader and played into Brown's 'all style and no substance' attack. "He looks very different from the poster," Brown told MPs, smugly, at the despatch box.
The gradually building election fever took a short break for Tony Blair's appearance at the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war at the end of January. You could almost feel some warmth return to Brown in the aftermath, as Blair, who had become visibly more messianic out of power, genuinely called for war with Iran and refused to countenance the idea that the Iraq invasion had been anything less than a resounding success.
As February came, and the country became unfeasibly cold, Brown still struggled to control independent voices in his government. His own chancellor, Alistair Darling described how the "forces of hell" had been unleashed after he foresaw the true extent of the financial crisis the year before it happened. Darling, whose standing had actually increased during his time in No 11, was keen to highlight this titbit of information, probably because it cast him in a good light. Speaking on the GMTV sofa the next day, Brown insisted, with a straight face, that "I would never instruct anybody to do anything other than support my chancellor". As the year progressed more and more criticism of his management style emerged, including stories of him throwing phones at the wall and brutalising secretaries' dispositions. The public appeared entirely unmoved by this, even when opponents tried to attach the 'bullying' tag to it.
The PM was still enjoying good news in March, when Lord Ashcroft, a real hate figure on the Labour benches for his funding of Tories in key marginals, finally admitted to being a non-dom. The timing couldn't have been worse. The ensuing row went on for days. Most voters didn't care about the details, but, just like the airbrushed posters, it played into concerns about Cameron that Labour wanted to promote: rich, aloof, fake.
Later that month, MPs David Chaytor, Jim Devine and Elliot Morley and Tory peer Lord Hanningfield went to court over allegations of false accounting. They tried to escape their instant status as sacrificial lamb for the expenses saga by claiming parliamentary privilege - a safeguard that's meant to protect MPs from libel cases on what they say in the parliamentary estate, not any and all actions which occur there.
MPs offered the public a whole new reason to despise them a couple of weeks later, when Hoon and Hewitt - yes, them again - were filmed offering to influence policy in exchange for cash, together with Stephen Byers. It was a pitiful sight, made worse by the fact that most didn't even believe they could influence policy anymore. At the end of a parliament which was as hated as any in British history, it was barely worthy of a footnote.
If that closed the era of the expenses parliament, the new era exploded on April 15th, when the first televised leaders' debate took place. It was extraordinary, like a starting gun to an election contest that was passing everyone by. In the days that followed we struggled merely to pick up the pieces. Suddenly, Nick Clegg was the most popular man in Britain. The rules had changed completely. Later, Cameron's team would rue the day they agreed to take part. It didn't harm him, but it certainly did him no favours. Within seconds it was obvious the TV debates were here to stay. It felt like a good thing.
By the time of the second TV debate, the Tory-supporting press had realised the danger of Nick Clegg and rounded on him. Fed stories by the Conservative press office, the day of the second leaders' debate saw Clegg attacked from all angles. The Telegraph went for him on donations - the start of a process which saw the paper throw away much of the goodwill it had built up over the expenses revelations. That allegation didn't even stand up until evening. The Daily Mail even questioned his Britishness. The attack dogs were well and truly out.
If Clegg's team were concentrating on the rather impressive array of forces against him, they should instead have been looking for subtler dangers. On April 27th a small PR event that prompted only minor interest at the time lay out the groundwork for the most emotional political betrayal of the coalition. A National Union of Students campaign asking parliamentary candidates to sign a pledge promising to fight any rise in tuition fees received 13 Tory supporters, 200 Labour supporters and 300 Lib Dem supporters. Remember this moment. It will become important later on.
Even if we'd realised what that pledge would mean, we would still have been temporarily distracted the next day, when Gordon Brown had an orchestrated chat with a woman named Gillian Duffy, a working class Labour supporter with a couple of issues over immigration. Sue Nye, one of his aides, had organised it, and it was one of the PM's most successful moments of the campaign. It went very well. Then Brown got in the car, forgot to take off his mic, and attacked Nye for putting him in front of that "bigot". Suddenly, everything went mad. In a real-time row exploding across all media outlets simultaneously, Brown discovered he had been heard and reported by Sky while still in the car. He was taken to a radio studio to issue an instant apology. He did that, but he was also filmed listening to it again, as he slumped in a chair. That was the moment, you felt, when he realised it was over. A few hours of madness later, he had gone to her home and apologised in person and branded himself a "penitent sinner" while wearing a completely insane smile. Later, he told his staff how sorry he was to them. Everyone knew that such a lacklustre campaign would not survive this.
And indeed it did not. On May 6th Labour lost its majority. Exit polls at 22:00 GMT showed the Lib Dems had won no extra support at all, despite the painfully titled moment of 'Cleggmania' gripping the country. It was accurate. The Lib Dems actually lost seats. But the big news was that the Tories hadn't got a majority either. Recriminations began instantly. By the end of 2010 they still hadn't swallowed Cameron but there were signs they might. The party had left its comfort zone because it thought it had picked a winner, but after years as opposition leader Cameron had still not won. Was it Ashcroft, the TV debates, his Etonian background, the economy? Was he too centrist, or still too right-wing? If there's been one failure of political analysts since the campaign, it's that we still don't have a proper answer to these questions.
Come back tomorrow for the concluding part of our 2010 year in review