Saturday

24th Feb 2018

UK elections: All bets off

  • Can he hold on? David Cameron could be out of Downing Street in May if opinion polls remain unchanged. (Photo: UK Parliament)

With a few months to go until Britain's next general election all bets are off. At least, so said Ukip leader Nigel Farage after his party won its second by-election in as many months in November.

It is hard to disagree with his analysis.

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Britons will decide next May whether to give David Cameron's Conservatives the chance to govern alone or to replace him with Labour's underwhelming leader Ed Miliband.

But in truth, it is looking increasingly unlikely that either party will win a majority in the House of Commons. Having gone more than 80 years without a formal coalition government, Britain is likely to follow the example of most other EU countries and become a country of coalitions.

As befits two parties badly short of confidence, neither really expects to win. The Conservatives continue to trail Labour in most polls, even though Miliband's personal ratings are edging closer to the numbers endured by France's perennially unpopular Francois Hollande. Both have languished on between 30-35 percent in opinion polls for most of 2014 and their prospects are not likely to change significantly.

The embattled Liberal Democrats look set to survive five years in coalition with Cameron's party, a feat which few analysts thought possible back in 2010, but look almost certain to suffer the humiliating defeat that seems to befall most junior coalition parties.

Fragmented

Yet despite the major parties boasting the least distinguished front-benches in living memory, British politics has seldom been as interesting.

This is because it is more fragmented than at any other time in recent history. Despite still having a voting system, first past the post, that rewards the largest parties, there are a handful of would-be kingmakers when the votes are counted in May.

Some minor parties have seen a surge in popularity. In fact, the Liberal Democrats, Ukip - which wants to withdraw from the EU - and the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) could all win between 10 and 30 seats, although the SNP is likely to have the most MPs in the next parliament.

Neither is the economy likely to be the most important issue to voters, a blow for Cameron since most voters appear to have more financial trust in him and his finance minister George Osborne than in Labour's Miliband and Ed Balls. Instead, voters are preoccupied with reducing the number of immigrants, particularly from eastern Europe, whom they suspect of coming to Britain to take advantage of the country's benefits system and free health service.

Welfare tourism

The surging support for Ukip, who topped May's European election poll, and then won two parliamentary by-elections at the expense of the Tories, has prompted a rather unedifying competition between the Conservatives and Labour to see who can talk toughest on "welfare tourism".

Both have vowed to reduce the access of EU migrants to unemployment and housing benefit, although Cameron has backtracked on his initial plan to impose a cap on the total number of migrants.

So far, the plans have not persuaded the British public or had any support from other EU countries, but don't expect the parties to stop trying.

Nearly two years after promising to reform Britain's EU membership terms, followed by an "in/out" referendum in 2017, Cameron is no closer to uniting his fractious party or to setting out in any detail a coherent set of demands from EU capitals.

Brexit

If anything, the Conservatives are more divided on Europe than they were a year ago.

MPs Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless both defected from the Conservatives to Ukip, and both comfortably held their seats as Ukip candidates, prompting speculation that more defections to Nigel Farage's party are likely. Although Farage is taking heavy chunks of votes in Labour heartlands across the country, it is still the Conservatives who stand to lose most if the Ukip surge continues unabated.

Bill Cash, a veteran Conservative eurosceptic, has told media that around 200 of the Conservatives' 320 MPs plan to vote to exit the EU. Although the likely figure is closer to 100, the fact remains that a referendum would almost certainly lead to an unprecedented civil war in the Conservative faction.

Cameron's referendum pledge increasingly looks like his party's death sentence.

It is difficult to say whether a referendum is more or less likely than a year ago. Labour and the Liberal Democrats successfully resisted a planned law that would have made a plebiscite in 2017 legally binding. Whether they can still resist agreeing to a vote in May is unclear.

Like the election itself, all bets are off.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2014 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of Europe in Review magazines.

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