2010: Year in review - part one


politics.co.uk looks to a possible future, in the second of our personal predictions for the year ahead.

By Ian Dunt

"No one expected this. Gordon Brown really is the Terminator. No matter how many times you put him down, he always somehow comes back."

Those words, from BBC political editor Nick Robinson, summed up the views of many Westminster hacks as opinion polls in early 2010 continued a trend seen at the end of last year: Labour was closing the gap on the Conservatives.

Predictions of a March election died around February time. Even with strong polls, Brown was unwilling to go to the country without a Budget. Many analysts also concluded he was discouraged by his personal ratings, which remained stubbornly low, despite the Labour party itself being better received.

What was it? No one knew for sure. With the country's economic woes improving far too gradually for anyone to express any enthusiasm, some said the Tory cuts agenda had begun to actively turn people off. By the time May 6th rolled around, with a gap of just three per cent between Labour and Tories, many pundits were predicting a shock Labour victory, or even a hung parliament.

It didn't happen. The Tories won, but with a pitiful majority of four. The Tories won 114 seats but the odds were stacked against them by Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system which, ironically, they had supported vociferously. For most of the night, it seemed as if Cameron would lose. He failed to secure seats like Tooting, Bristol North West and Cardiff North. In the end, urban centres were resistant to the Tory message. Labour's concentration on its core vote, the timing of the vote during the local election, and the persistent cuts agenda of the Tories saw the centre-left party prevent a Conservative landslide victory, even if it failed to cling onto power.

Gordon Brown came out to announce his resignation as Labour leader just minutes after Cameron's victory speech, which was necessarily understated. Brown remained on the backbenches, but travelled down to Westminster less and less as the year progressed.

Labour's ensuing period of in-fighting was shorter than expected. The Tories had not received a mandate, and Labour was not flattened. The electoral annihilation that triggers periods in the wilderness simply hadn't occurred. This wasn't 1997. It's easy to say in hindsight, of course, but for a brief spell in the summer, it did seem as if the party might destroy itself. The Cabinet ministers who departed the government in the exodus of June 2009 soon made their way back to the fold. James Purnell, Hazel Blears and Caroline Flint soon joined other 'modernisers' to push for a David Miliband bid.

But the forces of the left were in a far stronger position than before. So many analysts credited the slim Tory victory to Brown's insistence on class war politics, and his promises to protect front line services, that the voice of the left could not be ignored. Compass, Harriet Harman and Ed Balls led the drive from the left.

Officials managed to keep internal arguments predominantly behind closed doors but when it appeared as if the dam wall would break, and former ministers geared up to attack one another on television, Labour's new leader stepped forward. Allies had been trying to convince Alan Johnson to stand since Brown made his announcement, but he had deflected their advances on the basis that he genuinely didn't want the top job. The sight of years in the wilderness seemed to change his mind, and Johnson took over, unopposed. He still views himself as a caretaker, but his popularity remains high and few analysts expect him to step down anytime soon. In the words of the Times' Daniel Finkelstein: "In this age of anti-politics, the mere fact he doesn't appear to want the job is enough to ensure he remains a popular leader among MPs and especially the public."

In one of those cruel ironies of politics, the government was far more downbeat than the opposition. The decision to retain the reform to inheritance tax was disastrous. During times of plenty, voters had agreed with George Osborne that it discouraged aspiration. But during tough times, Osborne's determined efforts to force it through became immensely unpopular. Once income tax and VAT shot up, people on medium incomes became hostile to the idea of cutting taxes for millionaires. Cameron confided privately that he could not believe Brown's attacks on the policy during PMQs had been proved true - even if the public only agreed a year later.

But Osborne, obsessed with the jubilant reception the policy had garnered when he originally announced it back in 2007, simply would not let it go. Relations between him and Cameron disintegrated alarmingly, with the chancellor increasingly closing himself off in Number 11 among a close circle of trusted allies. The personal friendship which had driven them through opposition simply fell apart under the strains of power.

The media, no longer so in love with Cameron, began to pay more attention to international economic experts urging the new government not to take drastic financial action just yet. It seemed as if, rather suddenly, Cameron was isolated, both at home and abroad. Vince Cable, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats after the party failed to capitalise on Labour's weakness in the wake of the election, joined the chorus of attack on the Conservative administration's economic policy.

But the Emergency Budget, held immediately after the general election, was the most savage Britain had seen in a generation. There were 15 per cent pay cuts across the public sector for those earning over £25,000. Public sector pensions became almost useless. Income tax and VAT were raised significantly. Investment programmes slowed to a halt. The NHS and education remained ring-fenced against cuts, but the party eventually U-turned on its commitment to protect international aid.

In the last quarter of 2010, the economy shrank again, for the first time in a year. Britain's hesitant recovery seemed doomed, as people stopped spending and investors backed away from the UK following widespread protests, and a series of long and painful industrial disputes. As Britain goes into the new year, economists are looking ahead to results for the first quarter of 2011, to see if this really will become a double-dip recession. It has already been the most painful, and it is again common for diplomats to refer to the UK as the 'sick man of Europe'.

The left found itself strangely united. With the divisions created by New Labour were now long buried, and an anti-Tory agenda united left and right of the Labour party, meaning those opposed to the government's agenda spoke with a clear voice.

From outside the country, European leaders joined the attacks on the government. Incensed by the sight of a government of a leading European nation in cahoots with fringe elements in the European parliament, leaders like Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy launched unprecedented attacks on the Tory government from across the Channel. Paradoxically, Cameron's tough response to these criticisms earned him some of the highest poll ratings of his time in power, as the public reacted furiously to European interference in British affairs.

It's still early days, and analysts point to the fact Margaret Thatcher suffered worse eventualities before going on to remain in power for years, but Cameron's honeymoon was short, and his in-tray stacked with seemingly insurmountable problems.

The Tories would never have guessed, but their worst year since 1997 came when they returned to power.


Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.