2011: Nothing is inevitable
Well, once again, here we are. The start of a new year and with it, lots and lots of attempts to see twelve months into the future. Last year, I said that the key word would be ‘if’, that everything that happened would be conditional on something else. This year is much the same, though instead, I think there’s a word that needs to be avoided: inevitable.
It was believed that a Tory majority was inevitable last year, and look what happened: yes, David Cameron did end up in Downing Street, but only with the support of the Liberal Democrats. Similarly, the Scottish press appear to have already awarded victory in this year’s election to Iain Gray. My advice to them is not to be too sure, and even if Labour do indeed end up the largest party, it’s not cut and dry that Iain Gray will end up in Bute House.
But whoever does win, how they got there will be as a result of a new style of deal-making: the Coalition era in Scotland is over for a while, especially as the likely numbers don’t make for a stable agreement as was possible at Westminster. A minority government without any agreements (or one that doesn’t get a party to 65) is out: last time, Labour gave up the ghost and went into opposition thinking that the minority government wouldn’t last and they’d be back in office soon. As we know, it didn’t happen: whatever the outcome, Labour will try and do what they can to get in, while the SNP will do what they can to stay in, so there will be a race to make a deal. This, I think, is the era of Confidence and Supply: whoever forms the Government will be in power guaranteed for four years, and Budgets will be less agonising than before, with the necessary 65 votes already in the bag.
As for the Budget, be ready for it to fall: the Tories have a long list of things they want the Government to cut. The Government won’t want to. Similarly, Labour have a long list of things they want the Government to spend money on. The Government won’t be able to afford it. Tavish Scott, meanwhile, will simply have a long list of people he’d rather see as First Minister instead of Alex Salmond. Again, failure isn’t inevitable, but it’s incredibly plausible… especially as the impending election blows out of the water the need for the parties to at least appear constructive.
But as we know, that’s not the only vote on the horizon – the Oldham East & Saddleworth By-Election comes a week on Thursday – I’m willing to predict that the SNP won’t win it (mainly as they don’t field candidates in English seats), but that’s as far as I’ll go. Anything could happen: Labour are the opposition now, have made advances in support in the wake of the LibDem collapse and have to defend the seat against the same LibDems. However, it was Phil Woolas’s lying leaflets that caused the election, so it’s not certain. The LibDems were in second place, have a notable By-Election machine, had their candidate in place right from the get-go (it’s the guy Woolas lied about) and the Tories might be fielding a candidate but are pretty much sitting this out to give the LibDems a decent wind. But the party has gone to pieces of late, and that has to affect things. Even the Tories weren’t necessarily out of this, and could have come through the middle given the disgrace of the local Labour campaign and the shambolic state of the LibDems nationally, but don’t seem to be lifting a finger. Maybe the BNP could have done well – not won, of course, but done better than usual: immigration is a hot-button issue in Oldham (hence the Woolas leaflets), the BNP are strong there as a result, and they tend to profit in England when people are fed up of the mainstream. But even they are imploding so their chances of real progress are slim. I can’t even begin to call this one.
And the other big one is the AV Referendum. Here’s something I am willing to stick my neck out and say: whatever the result, any move towards genuine PR is now impossible until the late 2020s: a Yes vote means the system will need to bed in; a No vote will be treated as a ringing endorsement of the status quo. At the moment, I fear that the No camp will win. The Tories are opposed; Labour’s attitude to this echoes their approach to the 1979 Scottish Assembly Referendum (split down the middle, with those in favour being at best lukewarm anyway and certainly unwilling to work with other supportive parties); and while the LibDems might seek a Yes vote, unless something radical changes attitudes to the LibDems in the early Spring, those who would listen to Nick Clegg in the first place would probably be reluctant to believe him if he said that rain was wet. The No camp will get their people out on May 5; the Yes camp won’t.
So what of the SNP’s fortunes? These are tied to the election and my guess is that this time next year, either Alex Salmond will be First Minister or Nicola Sturgeon will be Leader of the Opposition. Should he find himself out of Bute House, I don’t expect Alex Salmond to hang around for long. Nicola Sturgeon has done enough over the last six years to prove herself a worthy successor when the time comes and would win a contest should it occur. Kenny MacAskill will stand, and do better than expected (though not enough to win), while Mike Russell has the capacity to launch a far more credible bid than in 2004, but might see the Depute Leadership as a better bet (he’ll win that if he goes for it). Should, however, the SNP remain in office, then the FM has a couple more years in him yet, and I don’t particularly envisage a particularly major re-shuffle of the Cabinet Secretaries. The Ministers, however, are a different story and we’ll see a fairly big infusion of talent from the Class of 2007.
Then there’s Labour. We’ve all heard the rumblings that Iain Gray is about to ditch Andy Kerr for being too much of a threat. I seem to recall that the last Iain to lead an Opposition – Iain Duncan Smith – tried doing that to David Davis by demoting him in favour of Theresa May. It didn’t work for IDS and if Iain Gray does try it, it won’t work for him either. That we’re even speculating about that sort of row at the top table is why I have this mental block when it comes to trying to imagine Gray in Bute House. Still, if it does happen, he’s going to make enemies right from the get-go on account of his Shadow Cabinet being just too large, meaning that people are going to be disappointed that they’re not getting the ministerial post they wanted. Therefore, he’ll use up a lot of political capital just forming a Cabinet, and when things go wrong (that is inevitable – this is what happens to governments) he’ll be especially vulnerable so I do wonder if, whatever happens the contest to be FM in 2015 will be between Nicola Sturgeon and Andy Kerr. I suspect, again, that if Gray isn’t FM by the end of May, then Kerr will be Leader of the Opposition by the end of the year. Unlike in any possible SNP contest, however, I have difficulty envisaging who would even stand. Johann Lamont might take a punt but would be unsuccessful. Here’s a tip though: Hugh Henry for Presiding Officer. It’s Labour’s turn – everyone else has supplied one and Henry has gained a great deal of kudos for his Convenership of the Public Audit Committee. Certainly he’s the only figure I can think of from the Labour benches, particularly with Deputy PO Trish Godman retiring in May.
The Tories have a chance to hold the balance of power this time and perhaps be the undisputed kingmakers at Holyrood. That depends partly on the Green showing, but remember that the boundary changes have been kind to the Tories: extra seats in the West and North East. Also, Alex Fergusson will be leaving the Chair so he will revert to them. Of course, there’s still a question mark over whether they can turn notional seats into actual seats, but we’ll see. In any case, with the SNP known to be their preferred partners at Holyrood (even if the feeling isn’t necessarily mutual), the big question is what steps will be taken to implement the Sanderson review. Annabel Goldie has said that she will seek re-election as Party Leader after the Election, and you know what? I reckon she’ll win. She’s the most well-known of the Tories, Murdo Fraser is potentially too abrasive and if she delivers an actual deal with a Government that includes Scottish Tory policies, then her place in the Tory pantheon is assured. Besides, pundits have been forecasting her demise since she took up the Leadership in 2005. She’s hung on for five years and I think that she’ll be the one to choose the timing and manner of her departure.
Then we come to the LibDems. Thanks to circumstances completely outwith his control, (the Coalition, of course) Tavish Scott will end up a lucky man if he retains three quarters of his MSPs. They aren’t going to be the kingmakers (it’s a cert that Labour are their preferred partners at Holyrood and it’s unlikely that the two parties combined will have the numbers they required on their own) so they either have to make nice with the Greens or be frozen out again. The one ray of light for Scott is that the electoral carnage about to be unleashed upon them makes it difficult to identify a credible challenger to him as we don’t know who is going to survive it. He’ll hang on for a year, at least. However, this could be the catalyst for the end of the Coalition: after the tuition fee debacle and the humiliation of Vince Cable at the end of last year, a possible failure in Oldham, combined with the double whammy of defeat in the AV referendum and a likely reverse in the Scottish Elections could prove the tipping point for many Liberal Democrat members and Nick Clegg will come under such tremendous pressure that either the Coalition or the party might be broken. Though again, it’s not inevitable: remember, no one expected the SNP minority government to last this long. The Coalition might yet surprise us all and survive the year. But if the LibDems keep taking the pounding they’re getting right now, they’ll have to walk.
Finally, the Greens. As the undisputed ‘Other’ party, with the near-total collapse of the left-wing parties, with the momentum provided by their English counterparts in the success of Caroline Lucas and with the LibDems as unpalatable as ever, the Greens are in a position to make a real advance. But it’s not inevitable, especially as we’ve been here before: the Greens were supposed to hit double figures in 2007, but instead lost seats; the Greens were supposed to make the breakthrough in 2009, it didn’t come off; 2010 was supposed to break the mould, particularly with Caroline Lucas likely to win Brighton Pavilion, but the Scottish Greens could only keep one deposit – and that was Robin Harper’s! So they could make gains again, they could be the kingmakers. Or it could all unravel. The Greens need to stop thinking they’ve won the race when they haven’t even jumped the last fence yet. It’s that false dawn that does them every time and as ever, the Greens need to be wary of it.
Finally, a few real predictions: Rangers to win the SPL with one game to spare, and to win the Co-Operative Cup in Extra Time. Hearts to win the Scottish Cup and come third, Dundee United to just edge out Kilmarnock for fourth – St Mirren to go down, Dunfermline to come up. In England, Man U for the Premiership, Chelsea to recover and come second, Man City third, Arsenal fourth and to win the Carling Cup. Spurs to come fifth and win the FA Cup, Bolton to qualify for the Europa League along with a late-in-the-day surge by Liverpool. Wolves and Newcastle to go down, along with either West Ham or Aston Villa (depending on whether or not Villa sack Houllier). Real Madrid for the Champions’ League, and Man City for the Europa League.
Finally, I’m sorry to say that Scotland won’t make it into the Euro 2012 draw, but will put in a credible performance on which the team will be able to build for 2014 and 2016, so the medium-term future is surprisingly bright. England will make it, thanks to some scrappy wins, favourable results elsewhere in the group, and a final game not unlike the 2002 World Cup qualifiers (where England qualified by dint of a last-minute equaliser against Greece, supplied by a David Beckham free kick) will just see them through. The media will then overlook the dire performances and anoint England the next winners.
Basically, across the board, if 2010 was the year of plus ça change, expect 2011 to be the year of plus c’est la même chose.