John McTernan: Political power shift approaches

Ukip’s inroads into the Tory vote and the Prime Minister’s reactive, indecisive politics are likely to spell the end for the coalition and hand Ed Miliband the big job, writes John McTernan

Neither David Cameron nor Nick Clegg are happy. Picture: AFP/Getty
Neither David Cameron nor Nick Clegg are happy. Picture: AFP/Getty

At the end of term at Westminster, MPs, staff and civil servants were all looking forward to a break, though it will be short. Everyone expects 2014 to kick off at high speed and maintain that velocity.

It’s a major political year: the European elections will be held as well as the referendum on independence. And as a pre-election year, there will be a tangible shift from politics as normal to campaigning. Though right to the end of this year, there’s been no slackening of the pace. Legislation is being rushed through to restrict the access of European Union citizens to benefits in the UK.

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This legislation is worth dwelling on; it tells us a lot of what we need to know about politics at the moment. First, it is bipartisan. There is no doubt that “welfare”, as social security is now known, will be centre-stage in the next election. The Tories believe that they can paint Labour as the party of the shirking classes. Rachel Reeves – Labour’s shadow secretary for work and pensions, and a rising star – has set out her stall: she will be “tougher than the Tories”. Expect her to be true to her word. A majority of voters believe that the current system is failing and needs reform – by which they mean it is too generous and not tough enough.

This is true even in Scotland, where the Scottish are as hardline on this as Home Counties’ Telegraph readers. (It is quixotic indeed of the normally pragmatic Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon to be arguing for increasing welfare spending when it is a cause so drastically out of line with public opinion.)

Secondly, this argument is about Europe and reflects the extent to which Ukip is setting the agenda. Its rise continues unabated – with the failure to capture Eastleigh in the by-election marking poor strategy rather than the peak of an electoral wave. All main parties expect Ukip to “win” the European elections – topping the polls and picking up extra seats.

What that means for the next General Election is still an open question. Ukip represents a real insurgency on the Right and has swallowed all those discontented voters who in recent years used the British National Party to cast a protest vote. Can Ukip win any constituencies? It’s very hard to see the party breaking through anywhere. What Ukip certainly threaten to do is nick four or five thousand votes a seat from the Tories.

That currently spells the end for Cameron and Nick Clegg. Remember the 2005 election? Even after the Iraq war, Tony Blair got a substantial majority. Not because of Labour’s vote – it fell to 35 per cent – but because Ukip siphoned off around 2,000 Tory votes in each seat. With Labour steady at 38 per cent of the vote in opinion polls, on current form Ukip is set to deliver Ed Miliband a majority in 2015.

This is the reality that drives David Cameron’s tactics at the moment. It’s why he is offering an EU referendum after the next election – that’s a manoeuvre both to lash-in his own right-wing, and to attract voters who are flirting with Ukip. It’s why he is ditching his hard-won reputation as a centrist, compassionate Tory.

But this takes you to the third, and most intriguing, question about the benefits legislation – why is it happening now? The rights of Bulgarian and Romanian workers to come to the UK were settled years ago. When Cameron became Prime Minister, he knew that 1 January, 2014, was the date set for those rights to kick in. If he was strongly and passionately opposed to this, or he thought it would be a genuine problem, then he could have acted well in advance. He didn’t. He’s only acting now to send a signal to British voters, not to deter any potential Eastern European dole cheats.

This is in keeping with David Cameron’s leadership. He is the least-defined prime minister of the modern era. Eight years in charge of the Tories, three-and-a-half running the country. To paraphrase the cry of the young child who saw the elderly Winston Churchill: “What is that man for?” His most emblematic statement of personal politics is a statement of what he won’t do: “I won’t cut the NHS.”

So we have a reactive prime minister whose presence, authority and general good-chappery has got him out of every scrape to date. But at the cost of an appearance of indecisiveness – the Heathrow third runway is a classic of its kind. A Blair or a Thatcher would have done it in the interests of the country. Would even, in their pomp, have risked breaking a manifesto promise if it was “in the national interest”. David Cameron is the precise opposite. He recently complained that being in coalition had forced him to make decisions that were against the national interest. Imagine if Thatcher had said that of Geoffrey Howe, or Blair or Gordon Brown. That it passed so unremarked tells us that the observations of the Prime Minister have, in an odd way, actually become quite unimportant.

This is the context in which Ed Miliband has flourished in the second half of the year. It was clear that Miliband could make big calls. He got phone-hacking right from the outset. He picked the public mood on Syria. But could he make the political weather? From that perspective, his conference speech was defining. The national conversation since then has been about energy prices – and by extension about “cost of living”.

Number Ten has vainly been playing catch-up ever since. Now Ed has moved on to housing – another talking-point issue that connects to everyday voters. It can be invidious to compare one political era to another, but there is something of the 1970s about the current era. Falling living standards. A sense that everything is broken and nothing can be done about it. And there is something about David Cameron that is coming to resemble Ted Heath. The firm principles that crumble in the face of reality. The switches of persona. And when all else fails – the emollience.

To continue the analogy: is Miliband our era’s Harold Wilson? There are parallels. Both bright, both young Cabinet ministers, both leading and unifying the Labour Party after a long period of factionalism. All Ed lacks is a set-piece speech as visionary as Wilson’s “white heat of technology”. Lest we forget, Wilson was the champion of the major social reforms that modernised Britain – from equal pay to divorce law and race equality. And he was also Labour’s most electorally successful leader – winning four out of the five elections he contested.