Spring of the Long Knives

Nigel Farage must be laughing himself silly. Not to be hyperbolic, but chaos has beset the main three parties, as the last few weeks show the knives being drawn from clunky sheaths by not the subtlest of hands. Just today, Conservative cabinet ministers Hammond and Gove turned up the temperature on Cameron by announcing that a referendum on Europe tomorrow would see them voting “out”. The pain isn’t limited solely to the Tory leadership however, as signs indicate Labour and Liberal Democrat factions are steadily beginning to murmur insubordination.

It doesn’t come as the greatest of surprises that Peter Mandelson is dipping his beak back into the news cycle at this point, with words that poor old Ed Miliband won’t be delighted to read. Attacking the vagueness of the rather insipid “One Nation” theme that the opposition launched at last year’s party conference, the more cutting edge of his criticism was about Labour’s broader trajectory and focus. “You have to be more than a slogan and more than a label to get people to vote for you. So much is obvious,” he says.

Clearly not obvious enough to his party’s Commons front bench, who have proved guilty of being little more than a hollow protest bloc under Miliband’s leadership. The odd whispers of exciting, intellectual social democratic ideas that he is reported to be a font of haven’t translated into notable policy or a cohesive party mission. And more importantly, they haven’t translated into an energising force in terms of the electorate. Miliband, and Ed Balls for that matter, have consistently polled worse than their opposites in government.

This will be a strange one for Miliband to compute, given that “One Nation”, a concept pinched off conservative Disraeli, was his attempt to plant the Labour flag much closer to the Mandelson-favoured centre-left. A mild twist, given that Miliband came up through the party in the Brown faction that never quite got behind the “Third Way”, and was propelled to the top by the unions. Without the support of the dark lord of the New Labour movement and having been recently thoroughly spanked by Unite leader Len McCluskey for not being a union lapdog, it seems that Cameron is not alone in his hapless scramble in the dark for an ideological foothold.

Perhaps the most speculative of the treacherous whispers is regarding Nick Clegg, although how his fate isn’t considered inevitably sealed by his party’s current flirtation with ruin is an enigma. Whether or not Gove’s suggestion that Clegg’s opposition to childcare reforms is an attempt to shore up his strength in the party is almost irrelevant. Supposing that the slyly propagated rumour was true, and even if Lord Oakeshott were to put Vince Cable on the throne, the party are doomed to face only more electoral pain for the coming years. The initiative is gone for the Liberal Democrats, and they won’t see another bump in the polls like 2010 for some time, if ever again.

Of greatest import currently is that we’re on the eve of dramatic activity within the Conservative party, with events since the local council elections telling us that Cameron is likely to surrender to most of his right wing’s demands on Europe and immigration. Unless he has suicidal tendencies. Even the “compassionate” sympathisers seem to be getting dragged by fear into the traditional fold as is particularly indicated by Gove, who has been a major supporter of Cameron up to this point and for a long time. The education secretary undercutting his leader so bluntly is no small thing.

Until the 25th hour Cameron was desperately trying to inject enough confidence in his EU “renegotiation” strategy with Merkel to avoid this sort of mess, but UKIP struck too soon and he simply failed in that respect. With prominent ministers speaking their rather expedient piece, adding to the anti-EU chorus of old Tory notables like Nigel Lawson, this bizarre vote on the Queen’s Speech amendment on Tuesday is about as clear a message to the PM that it’s time for obedience on Europe. That, or protracted in-fighting, which could consign the lot of them straight back to opposition.

Tense times, where centre-ground politics are at stake. The country is generally not at all lurching to the right, as the Daily Mail might idiotically suggest in an attempt to deny Labour some comfort out of a very soft performance in the polls, but the race to target the middle that New Labour initiated has presently lost its vigour. I don’t think it’s impossible that we see a set of manifestos come 2015 that much more resemble types from the pre-Blair years. It’s looking that way for the Tories and we still have to see for Labour, but the amount of time they take to start galvanising their bases is directly proportional UKIP’s consummately unwanted longevity.


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