365 days to go to the general election and counting. For keen students of politics it is a fascinating period, because with only one year out, there is no way of calling who will win.
In normal times the fact that the economy is recovering so strongly should deliver victory to the Conservatives who ought to be able to capitalise on what they can claim is sound management of the economy. Economic recoveries take time to percolate down to people’s pay packets, but even that has begun to change, with wage inflation now outstripping normal inflation. This should then, be a shoo-in for David Cameron.
But in reality, the Conservatives are far from looking secure. They are crippled by two wounds – their failure to secure boundary changes during this Parliament which has delivered Labour an inbuilt electoral advantage and the splits in their supporter base caused by UKIP.
The rise of UKIP could well be the decisive factor. While they are going to do well in the European elections, it is a racing certainty that the high level of support they get this month will not be replicated to the same degree at the general election. But UKIP doesn’t need to win many, or indeed any, seats at the general election to influence the outcome. As a repository of protest among people predominantly in constituencies the Conservatives need to win, UKIP only need to maul the Tories to allow in Labour or Liberal Democrat candidates.
So Labour MPs must be licking their lips. But Labour’s chances do not look that much better. The party is hampered by Ed Milliband’s relative unpopularity and by the fact that the recovering economy reinforces Conservative claims that Labour were responsible for the crash and cannot be trusted going forward. The economic performance has also reveals a potentially fatal strategic error. Labour has focused its appeal on claiming that under the Conservatives, the people in the middle are being squeezed. But as the economy improves this looks less and less the case. Add in the fact that there might well be a low turnout caused by a general ‘plague on all your houses’ attitude and Labour, who struggle with low turnouts because their supporters are disproportionally younger and the old folk always vote, may struggle to make the headway they need.
As for the Liberal Democrats, there seems no way that the party will escape a mauling from the electorate and see its tally of MPs fall significantly. That does not mean, though, that they will be excluded from power a year from now. Unless there is an absolutely storming performance by UKIP, it seems likely that the Liberal Democrats will be the third largest party and, in the event that no political party secures an outright majority, they will still get to play a role in a future Government.
And this is what I think will happen. I suspect that with the two main parties still powerful, but too damaged to land a killer blow, we will see another hung parliament. In those circumstances, it seems unlikely that the Liberal Democrats will have the stomach for another five years sharing power with the Conservatives and that they will turn to Ed Milliband.
For this to happen, Nick Clegg will have to go as he will not be acceptable either to Labour or to his own party. So look forward to a speedy post-election leadership campaign that will be won by Vince Cable who will become Chancellor in an Ed Milliband led Government (Milliband will surely prefer Cable as Chancellor over Ed Balls?). Paddy Power is offering 20/1 on Vince Cable being the next chancellor. Worth a punt I would say.