Jon Craig: A year since the election began - spectacular shocks and myths laid bare
Here are a dozen shocks in the 12 months since March 2015. And, for good measure, three myths.
Exactly a year ago, parliament was dissolved and the 2015 general election campaign – the so-called short campaign, in the jargon - officially began.
What a difference a year makes. Er… hold on! A year ago the world was shocked by a terrorist attack (Tunisia) and the government was battling to save a steelworks (Redcar); 12 months on, terrorists have struck again (Brussels) and a steel plant (Port Talbot this time) is fighting to survive.
But politics looks very different from a year ago. Less than a year after the heady celebrations of election victory, David Cameron faces the possibility of losing the EU, losing Scotland and presiding over the death of the British steel industry. And losing his job. Some legacy!
It has been a year of spectacular shocks - and a few myths laid bare. So here are a dozen shocks in the 12 months since March 2015. And, for good measure, three myths.
First, the shocks and what they mean now and for the future:
. It was just a week before parliament was dissolved that David Cameron declared in his Oxfordshire kitchen: “Terms are like Shredded Wheat – two are wonderful, but three just might be too many.” How he must choke on his cereal every morning since saying that. His pre-announcement of his resignation has defined the political year and triggered a battle for the Tory succession that overrides every other consideration in government and the Conservative Party.
CAMERON WINS OVERALL MAJORITY. He didn’t expect it. Nor did George Osborne. But they did it, winning the Tories’ first outright election victory since John Major in 1992. But the past year has seen a repeat of the drama and turmoil of the Major years: a rancorous party split over Europe within months of victory and a slim commons majority making the government vulnerable to defeats by opposition ambushes and even small backbench rebellions.
POLLS GET IT SO WRONG. How did the pollsters blunder so badly by predicting a photo-finish and hung parliament? Were they just sloppy? Or were they conned by voters who told them one thing and did another – voting Tory – in the privacy of the polling booth? Has the industry salvaged itself in the past year? Hardly. The EU referendum campaign has exposed flaws and discrepancies between internet and phone polling. Unless the polls get something spectacularly spot-on soon, their reputation could be irreparably damaged and they may never be trusted again.
MILIBAND’S HOPES CRUSHED. Was it the bacon sandwich that did for him? Well, it didn’t help. Were journalists fair to Ed Miliband on the campaign trail? Certainly. But showing the bacon sandwich debacle over and over again on TV was perhaps a bit mischievous. (Labour eventually complained to Sky News and no doubt to other broadcasters too.) And journalists can’t be blamed for awkward moments in the TV debates, such as the “Hell yes!” and “You OK?” exchanges with Jeremy Paxman.
LIB DEMS ALL BUT WIPED OUT. Same question about Nick Clegg. Were we fair? Absolutely. As deputy prime minister he got more coverage than a Lib Dem leader would otherwise have received. And none of us saw the Tory crushing of the Lib Dems coming. They were ruthlessly assassinated by their own coalition partners, in a strategy that with hindsight was a masterstroke by the newly knighted Sir Lynton Crosby. I predict they’ll bounce back, though… eventually. But it could take time.
SURGIN’ STURGEON’S STORMING SUCCESS. We saw this one coming, but not winning as many as 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats. The disappointment for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, of course, is that their powerful block of MPs doesn’t hold the balance of power at Westminster, as they’d hoped. But they’ve proved to be disciplined and well-organised, capable of inflicting major pain on the Tories on issues such as Sunday trading. They’re well marshalled by their general in charge of commons tactics, Pete Wishart, and they all turn up to vote!
CORBYN WINS. We didn’t see this coming until it became clear that (a) the thousands of new “£3 members” who joined to vote in the Labour leadership election were nearly all Corbynistas, (b) Jeremy was playing to packed houses of adoring crowds everywhere he went to campaign and (c) his rivals were fighting lacklustre campaigns in comparison. When wily Tom Watson said in late July that Labour MPs had a duty to work with Corbyn if he won, I knew then that he was going to win.
CORBYN SURVIVES. Despite everything, he’s still there. Labour MPs can plot and moan, but they’re better at moaning than plotting. There’s often an embarrassing silence from Labour MPs when Corbyn stands up in the Commons and the cheering comes from the Conservative benches opposite. How do the Blairites, the “bitterites” as John Prescott calls them, get rid of him? I suspect he’s there until the general election unless he steps down. And even if that happened, the “£3 members” would vote in John McDonnell.
LABOUR’S SYRIA SPLIT. Who remembers the Prime Minister’s speech or the numbers of MPs voting for and against military action? Not many of us. The abiding memory will be the barnstorming speech by Hilary Benn at the climax of the debate, contradicting – indeed, demolishing – the arguments against bombing put by Jeremy Corbyn at the start. The split caused a huge power struggle at the top of the Labour Party and demands from hardliners in the Corbyn inner circle for Benn’s sacking. But he held on… for now.
BORIS STABS DAVE IN THE BACK. Blond ambition! At least that’s how David Cameron regards what he sees as the London mayor’s treachery for dithering, appearing to back the Remain campaign and then declaring he’s an Outer. Boris has taken the gamble of his political life: a Leave vote on June 23 could see him seize the Tory crown within weeks; a vote to Remain could see Cameron and his pro-EU allies wreak a vicious revenge, despite the mayor’s popularity with activists. Northern Ireland secretary, Boris?
IDS FLOUNCES OUT. Two days after the budget, the self-styled Quiet Man turned up the volume and delivered a wounding attack on the prime minister and George Osborne. The welfare cuts were “indefensible”, he said in his resignation letter, and aimed at the poor “because they don’t vote for us”, he said on TV. Ouch! But hold on, said the PM, you agreed to the cuts! Oh no I didn’t, he squealed! A pantomime? Yes, with Cameron and Osborne cast as the Ugly Sisters.
GEORGE OSBORNE’S BUDGET UNRAVELS. It was the Chancellor who was probably more damaged by IDS’s resignation than the PM. At least that was IDS’s intention. It was, after all, the treasury announcing that the disability cuts would be “kicked into the long grass” that made him explode and quit. Now George has a £4 billion black hole in his budget and he’s under fire for his tax cuts for the rich. His leadership hopes are severely damaged, if not fatally wounded, unless he can bounce back as he has in the past.
And those myths? Well, here’s my take on them, thought you probably won’t all agree.
COALITION GOVERNMENT IS BAD GOVERNMENT. With hindsight, between 2010 and 2015 the Lib Dems exercised a firm handbrake on some of the Tories’ wilder right turns, which have now got David Cameron and particularly George Osborne into scrapes in the past year: tax credit cuts, Sunday trading and disability benefit cuts, for example. The coalition government also had a healthy commons majority of around 60 and had comfortable victories most nights. Does David Cameron secretly yearn for the stability of the coalition rather than his current bumpy ride?
LABOUR IS A USELESS OPPOSITION. That’s the fashionable view, argued by smug Tory MPs and those Labour MPs who have no time for their leader and want to remove him. True, some of Jeremy Corbyn’s performances in the commons have been woeful. But Labour can – and do – claim the credit for the tax credits u-turn and other government retreats. Add to that a thumping by-election victory in Oldham and things could be worse! Critics will say, of course, that the successes have come despite, not because of, Mr Corbyn!
TORY WOUNDS WILL HEAL AFTER THE EU REFERENDUM. That’s what David Cameron, his allies and even some senior Leave campaigners claim – and hope. Fat chance! The Tory civil war is becoming so acrimonious it’s difficult to see how some senior Tories can ever work together again. In just a few short weeks, the vicious “blue on blue” attacks have made Labour’s Left-Right battles look like an Islington tofu, falafel and carrot juice party.
So in the next few months, just a year or so after winning an unexpected general election victory, David Cameron is the party leader whose position is suddenly most under threat. Jeremy Corbyn is proving difficult to shift, nobody cares who leads the Liberal Democrats and UKIP’s Nigel Farage just suspends or sacks his leadership rivals when they emerge.
The Prime Minister, on the other hand, has made his own position extremely vulnerable later this summer, first by pledging last year to quit after two terms and second by going ahead with a perilous and unpredictable EU referendum. Perhaps three Shredded Wheat might not have been such a bad idea after all.
Jon Craig is Chief Political Correspondent at Sky News.
Gnomes: Dominic Lipinksi
Cameron: Stefan Rousseau
Sturgeon: Andrew Milligan
Miliband: Chris Radburn
Clegg: Jonathan Brady
All: PA Archive / Press Association Images