Looking back: 2009
Here’s our month-by-month review of a very stormy political year.
It’s been a year of anticipation in British politics, but also one of recrimination. Both parties will want to forget 2009, when the expenses scandal and the dire economic outlook forced politicians to confront some of their worst nightmares. Gordon Brown’s main achievement – survival – has set up a fascinating general election campaign.
With the political world still reeling after the game-changing 2008 Pre-Budget Report, David Cameron launched a new year reshuffle with a big surprise as its centrepiece. Ken Clarke’s return to frontbench politics was only spoiled by the fact he could not go head to head with the ennobled Peter Mandelson in the Commons.
The business secretary’s peers got into the headlines for the wrong reasons in January, when an undercover investigation revealed allegations that four peers had offered to table amendments to legislation in exchange for payment. The air of scandal – combined with Peter Hain’s apology to MPs over undeclared donations to his deputy party leadership campaign – was nothing compared to the trouble to come.
With the dust settled after the preceding autumn’s near-collapse of the global economy, City minister Paul Myners came under intense pressure in February. Scrutiny over whether he knew about the payoff arrangements for former RBS chief executive Sir Fred Goodwin haunted snowy Westminster. The text” target=”_blank”>defiant Sir Fred’s refusal to give up his £693,000 pension made him a personification of the bankers to blame for the economic crash. Lord Myners survived.
While Gordon Brown was busy dividing the country with his ‘British jobs for British workers’ slogan, Cameron was faced with a very personal tragedy. The death of his six-year-old son Ivan united the Commons in sympathy, leading to an unusual suspension of the House in place of prime minister’s questions.
The prime minister suffered embarrassment as deep as the Washington snow on his trip stateside, when an expected joint press conference with Barack Obama was cancelled. The snub paled into comparison when it came to Mandelson’s unexpected brush with some green custard a few days later, however. The business secretary was liberally doused with the liquid by an environmental activist. He said afterwards:”Whilst I’m prepared to take my fair share of the green revolution on my shoulders, I’m less keen on it in my face.”
Unemployment hit two million as the recession kicked in, underlining the importance of the looming G20 summit.
Chaos in the capital on April 1st generated follow-up stories throughout the rest of the year. Eighty-six people were arrested in the G20 protests as police deploying ‘kettling’ tactics in a bid to minimise disruption. Their heavy-handed tactics may have led to the death of Ian Tomlinson, a passer-by who was pushed to the ground. They certainly led to an enormous public backlash which culminated in demands for reform.
Brown did not get the bump in the polls he could have hoped for the G20. His dogged chairmanship of the G20 contributed to a historic joint effort to shore up the world’s financial system. A devastating scandal rocked No 10 days later, however. ‘Smeargate’, as it became known, saw the leaking of emails between Downing Street’s Damian McBride and Labour blogger Derek Draper. Their plans to damage the reputation of prominent Tories through a viciously cynical rumour-mill campaign backfired spectacularly.
McBride’s disgrace, though newsworthy, was soon dwarfed by the political event of the year. On May 8th the Telegraph newspaper published the first of its revelations about MPs’ expenses.
For weeks the scandal of widespread abuses of taxpayers’ money dragged on and on. The public seethed with anger as the true extent of the dodgy claims was laid bare. politics.co.uk developed an unhealthy reliance on pictures of parliament with dark clouds gathering overhead. Ultimately Michael Martin paid the price, becoming the first Speaker to be forced out of his chair for centuries.
There was still room, however, for another tremendous howler from the government. It made the strategic error of resisting actress Joanna Lumley’s demands that Gurkha veterans deserved to settle in Britain. Her battle-cry and deft politicking soon forced Brown to back down.
The supreme crisis of Downing Street’s year was still to come. Anticipating their usual drubbing in local elections, Brown was hit by a wave of resignations from Labour Cabinet ministers. Jacqui Smith left in a huff. Hazel Blears rocked the boat. John Hutton slipped away quietl. And James Purnell launched a direct attack on the prime minister after polls closed.
Amid news that Labour had lost control of all four of the councils it was defending, Brown responded with the only card left to play – the emergency reshuffle. Astonishingly it worked. Backbench opposition was neutered by the new Cabinet’s protestations of loyalty. The supreme survivor fought on.
After another almighty row over whether the Iraq inquiry would take evidence behind closed doors, as Brown suggested, the Commons became the focus of attention for the election of the new Speaker. Sir George Young, the initial favourite, was thwarted by the politically mobile Tory John Bercow – in spite of his deep unpopularity among his party colleagues.
After the excitement of the previous weeks July slipped past relatively quietly. Parliament backed expenses legislation, although the government’s attempt to brush the scandal under the carpet was to fail spectacularly. Two days later Tory Chloe Smith became its newest MP, after winning the Norwich North by-election from Labour. Local loyalty to Ian Gibson, who was perceived as being a victim of the expenses witchhunt, helping her achieve a 16.9 per cent swing from left to right.
MPs retreating for their controversially lengthy summer breaks saw attention shift to Afghanistan, where British troops were fighting and dying to ensure secure elections. Initially foreign secretary David Miliband claimed the polls had been a success. But revelations of widespread electoral fraud stripped Hamid Karzai of an outright majority. When the forced second round was cancelled because challenger Abdullah Abdullah pulled out Mr Karzai’s credibility was non-existent. The August election set a tone of mounting anxiety about Britain’s role in Afghanistan which haunted politics throughout the autumn.
Political news was not exclusively fixated on Afghanistan, however. American criticisms of the ‘evil’ NHS, fuelled by Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, prompted a rare patriotic backlash. And the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi gave the Scottish government an unusually significant moment on the world stage.
‘Cuts’ was the single word dominating politics as the new season got underway. Brown finally uttered the word in a key speech on the 15th, softening the blow by promising savings away from the frontline.
While Nick Clegg was dreaming of Downing Street and his party was getting in a spin over its mansion tax proposals in Bournemouth, attorney-general Baroness Scotland was getting in trouble of her own over her illegal immigrant cleaner.
She survived, perhaps because the prime minister had something bigger on his mind: his leader’s speech to the last Labour party conference before the coming general election. His electric first five minutes were unmissable, but it was too late for Rupert Murdoch. He withdrew the Sun’s support the following morning.
George Osborne’s speech proved the highlight of the Conservative conference in Manchester. He delivered a grim austerity agenda, blaming the current government as the party showed its hand. The sheer weight of Osborne’s policy announcements diminished, but could not eradicate, Tory divisions over Europe. Cameron’s leader’s speech was limp by comparison, but received rave reviews from the mainstream media.
Parliament returned to yet more expenses ordure, this time at the hands of auditor Sir Thomas Legg. Meanwhile protests outside BBC Television Centre marked the extent of public anger at BNP leader Nick Griffin’s controversial appearance on Question Time.
Cameron showed just how deft a politician he is with his redefining of his party’s European policy. After months of foot-dragging the Lisbon treaty had finally been passed, paving the way for a selection summit for the EU’s presidency and foreign affairs post. Speculation that David Miliband could be in line for the latter proved unfounded and the job eventually went, unexpectedly, to former trade commissioner Cathy Ashton.
Elsewhere something strange was happening: the beginning of Brown’s recovery in the polls. It began following a bizarrely personal press conference in Downing Street, as the PM sought to explain why he had mis-spelt the surname of a fallen soldier in a handwritten letter. It was the Sun, who printed the story, and not Brown who ended up with egg on its face. In another bonus for the PM, Labour held on to Glasgow North East.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the year came in the acrimony-filled two-week climate change summit in Copenhagen. Divisions between developed and developing countries prevented a legally binding deal being reached, disappointing not just Britain but the entire world.
Obama’s new strategy helped Brown instil a sense of new hope in Afghanistan, despite the 100th death of a British soldier there in 2009.
Attention focused on the economy as a result. Alistair Darling’s Pre-Budget Report prioritised the frontline in health, education and the police, leaving other areas even more exposed. The battlelines for the looming general election were coming clearer and clearer as 2009 drew to a close.