Why it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of UK politics

 
Allister Heath

COMPARE and contrast: when Nigel Farage balanced a pint of beer on his head yesterday, the stunt was seen as another PR triumph reinforcing his carefully constructed image as a happy go lucky, popular hero thumbing his nose at establishment convention.

But when William Hague, then Tory leader, infamously claimed in 2000 that he used to drink 14 pints of beer a day when he was a teenager working part-time for a soft drinks company (yes, really), commentators and voters didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. It was a complete disaster for Hague, now the foreign secretary, even worse than the moment he wore a “Team Hague” baseball cap and ill-fitting rain gear while riding a log flume in an amusement park.

Authenticity – however affected – is a rare commodity in politics – and is one reason (among many other more substantive and policy-driven ones, of course) why Ukip is doing so remarkably well. The voters believe Farage to be different; and a large minority can no longer bear the spin, tightly-controlled messaging and narcissism of small differences that characterises the rest of the political establishment and are thus voting Ukip.

The only other politician to exude authenticity in the same way is Boris Johnson – even though, paradoxically, he one of the most pro-immigration politicians in the UK today and is therefore ideologically at odds with Farage on this key issue.

The Tories did disastrously in the local elections in London, and grabbed just 22 per cent of the vote in the capital at the European elections (against 37 per cent for Labour and 17 per cent for Ukip). Yet Boris Johnson took the capital in 2012 with 44.01 per cent of first preferences during the mayoral elections. When his 44.74 per cent of second preferences from the minor candidates’ votes were added, he defeated Ken Livingstone by 51.53 to 48.47 per cent. The mayoral elections took place at the worst possible time for a Tory candidate, when David Cameron’s party was trailing badly in the polls and at the height of the pessimism about austerity; by contrast, last week’s elections took place under what ought to have been much better circumstances. Yet the outcome was horrendous for the party.

So Boris’ triumph was truly exceptional: he is that rare individual, an unapologetic yet liberal Tory who can triumph in left-wing London, which is not something the rest of his party or Ukip can pull off. He needs to be used much more extensively by his party, and he needs to make sure that the Tories don’t give up on London.

As to the Lib Dems, they are in deep trouble all over the country. It was just four years ago that a poll compared Nick Clegg’s then astonishing popularity with that of Winston Churchill; last week, the Lib Dems polled a pathetic 6.87 per cent of the vote, coming fifth after the Greens and winning just one MEP (down from 11).

Merely replacing Clegg is unlikely to do much good. Vince Cable, the most likely successor, is no longer as popular as he once was, with good reason. The party’s real problems are two-fold: it is seen as having lied over issues such as tuition fees; and its strategy of appearing left-wing in traditionally Labour seats and right-wing in traditional Tory ones has been devastatingly exposed (in time, this will also become a major issue for Ukip). The party’s woes could last for years, if not decades.

So what next? The most likely outcome is that nothing much will change. Ukip will win one or two seats; the Lib Dems will lose lots. The Tories will keep going with their current strategy, as will Labour. Whoever wins – either alone, or in coalition – will probably do so with a very small share of the vote. This will cast further doubt on the results’ legitimacy, and fuel the public’s alienation. It’s hard to be optimistic about the future of British politics.

allister.heath@cityam.com
Follow me on Twitter: @allisterheath