This has subsided in the new year due to the logical conclusion that there aren’t any circumstances whereby the Green party will pull out of Government anytime soon. There was a prospect that the Greens might exert greater political leverage because of a drubbing in those elections and the tightening of the Dáil arithmetic. This has not materialised. John Gormley and Eamon Ryan have underplayed their hand due to inexperience and a lack of political courage.
The similarities with the demise of the Progressive Democrats are remarkably uncanny. The latest opinion poll shows the Greens down 1% to 3%. This threatens the loss of their entire six Dáil seats. Ciarán Cuffe, Paul Gogarty and Mary White all hold marginal seats. These now look irretrievable. Ministerial constituencies like Dublin South and Dublin South East are particularly volatile and previously evicted Liz O’Donnell and Michael McDowell. If Trevor Sargent is the only deputy re-elected they are in meltdown territory. This vulnerability has undermined their cojones.
The Government’s banking inquiry falls far short of the expectations created by the Green leadership. It lacks transparency and public accessibility.
Brian Cowen has called the Greens’ bluff on budgetary issues, banking, the M3 and Poolbeg incinerator. FF now knows it can merely be polite and attentive to the Greens, while doing its own thing regardless. It is impossible to envisage any knockdown, drag-out circumstances of inter-party conflict. They may as well serve their full term as there won’t be further tenure.
FF have an added bonus — tax-based broadening measures (eg, domestic water rates, property tax on second homes and carbon levies) can be blamed as part of the price of a Green coalition.
The certainty of a general election in Britain by June allows political anoraks to switch their focus across the Irish Sea. The issues and personalities of this contest mirror our contemporary politics. Labour is seeking a fourth term after consecutive triumphs in 1997, 2001 and 2005.
The replacement of Blair by former chancellor Gordon Brown matches the FF leadership change since the last election. The succession stakes were without a contest. The challenge for the Conservatives after a dozen years in opposition reflects the task facing FG and Labour. Both economies have been in a macro-economic and banking tailspin since 2008. The Tories have elected five leaders since the reign of Maggie Thatcher. Critics blamed John Major, William Hague, Michael Howard and Ian Duncan-Smith for lacking the necessary charisma to ensure victory. This overlooks the deeper disconnection between their party and voters. Over the past decade, the Tories have prioritised a narrow traditional agenda.
Euro scepticism has been the most divisive and trailblazing political passion. Less government and consequent tax cuts have proved less important to floating voters than the quality of public services. Privatisation and trade union reform agendas were largely implemented during the Thatcher era. The other major policy platforms were anti-immigration and tough measures on crime. For the Tories to win they have to widen their appeal.
Enter stage left, David Cameron. Despite no ministerial experience, like Tony Blair previously, he has become the brand through which the Conservatives hope to win. His presidential style focuses on his marketing potential. Thatcherism, conservatism and every other sort of ‘ism’ has been replaced by an overriding opportunism. Healthcare and enhancement of the NHS has been a rock upon which the Conservatives have perished.
Cameron now trumpets a “Conservative compassion” which highlights his own disabled son’s failed battle for life. He articulates a passionate concern about Britain being a “broken society”. At every opportunity, such as last week’s attack on two small boys in Doncaster, he speaks of the need to tackle dysfunctional families on low incomes. He advocates support for families and proposes preferential tax treatment for the institution of marriage.
While Cameron hasn’t reached the dizzy heights of Obama’s rhetorical oratory, he echoes the constant cant of “change”. There is every indication this will succeed. Most recent opinion polls indicate the Tories will win an overall majority with more than the required 325 seats. In 2005, the vote share was Labour 35%, Conservatives 32%, Liberal Democrats 22% and Others 10%.
The redrawn electoral boundaries have created 650 single-seat constituencies. Only 138 have no alteration. Cameron’s principal achievement to date has been to see off the threat of disaffected Labour voters switching to the Lib Dems. Prospects of a proportional voting system are as remote as ever, with the first past the post arrangements here to stay. The rejection of the government equates to a Cameron premiership. The media will play a crucial role in the electoral battle. The Tories could always rely on a supportive press from the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. The decision by Rupert Murdoch to switch sides could be pivotal. The Sun will be right behind the blue insignia, having deserted Gordon Brown. It is alleged that a secret deal has been done whereby Sky News will no longer be subject to impartiality laws. This would allow it to be opinion orientated like Fox News in the US. This tabloid conversion could be crucial in preventing Labour depicting Cameron as an elite toff, having been educated at Eton and Oxford. There will be a critical televised three-way party leaders’ debate for the first time.
LABOUR is divided on Brown’s leadership. Former ministers Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt fronted a failed coup for a secret leadership ballot. This dissent is toxic for Labour.
Brown’s style is discredited as excessively micro-managerial. Fears abound of a bunker mentality in Downing Street, which some civil servants allege to be dysfunctional. His colourless Scottish persona lacks Blair’s middle England appeal. Boris Johnson’s success over Ken Livingstone for the London mayoralty reflected this mood shift. Conversely, to date the Tories have failed to make the required breakthrough in the north of England, Scotland and Wales.
On the policy front, like democracies everywhere, there has been a convergence on the centre ground. The differences between the parties are minimal with 80% of content being interchangeable. The stark ideological contrasts of red and blue have disappeared.
Whoever is in government will have to reverse the £31bn spending increase this year. This will involve up to 20% cuts in departmental budgets over four years. Expect to hear a lot about reform of public services and eliminating waste. The Tories are promising major reform of inheritance tax and significant increases in taxes on alcohol which should help our cross-border trade. All sides will be seeking to minimise damage from the MP expenses scandals.
What of the final predicted result? The answer won’t come in acres of column inches from political pundits and commentators. As always, I rely for guidance from the bookmaking fraternity who put their sterling where their mouth is. Current odds are 1/12 that Cameron will be prime minister on May 6. Enough said — game almost over.