How do you match 2010? For British politics it was the most tumultuous and turbulent year in living memory, defying all manner of clichés and conventional wisdom. There was the first hung parliament since 1974, the first coalition government since 1945 and the first Labour leadership election since 1994. There were shocks and upsets galore: a near-hysterical bout of nationwide “Cleggmania” saw the little-known leader of the Liberal Democrats morph into the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, while the 33-1 outsider Ed Miliband challenged and defeated brother David, the early favourite, in the summer-long struggle for the Labour crown.
2011, however, could end up being an even bigger and bloodier year for British politics – and in particular the economy. Few economists expect a return to recession, or the so-called “double dip”, despite the rise in VAT in January and savage cuts to public spending from April onwards. But most forecasters expect growth to be, at best, anaemic and unemployment to rise. Meanwhile, Britain’s top civil servant, Sir Gus O’Donnell, worries that the coalition government has no “plan B”.
But what of its plan A? Will Chancellor George Osborne’s package of draconian cuts lead to a further decline in the coalition’s approval ratings? Be prepared for further protests, marches and demos from students and anti-tax-avoidance activists, as well as trade unions, public sector workers and artistic and cultural figures. In the wake of the divisions and u-turns over the trebling of tuition fees, the Lib Dem leadership could find itself under pressure from its backbenches and its grassroots to quit the “cuts coalition” next year if, as suspected, the party suffers a bloodbath in the local, Scottish and Welsh elections on 5 May, and the referendum on electoral reform – to be held on the same day – is lost too. The Lib Dem Energy Secretary Chris Huhne has confessed that his party faces “two years of immense unpopularity”.
And what does the future hold for Labour’s Ed Miliband? The new leader of the opposition has been under pressure from MPs, activists and, of course, a hostile, centre-right media to put his “stamp” on the party. There are whispers in Westminster that he has until May 2011 to prove himself or else be challenged by disgruntled Blairites loyal to his elder brother. The elder Miliband is lurking ominously in the wings, having refused to rule out a return to frontline politics – or, for that matter, a future leadership campaign. Is there another chapter to be written in the Mili-brothers saga?
So an action-packed 2010 is over – but bring on 2011. This new, unpredictable and chaotic era of British politics is still in its infancy. The age of austerity has yet to begin. In the words of Winston Churchill, in the wake of the Allied victory over the Nazis at El Alamein in 1942: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”