Gordon Brown’s premiership in 2007 began auspiciously. From two domestic crises he managed to fashion a honeymoon. It is easy to forget now, but the new Prime Minister’s surefooted handling of a terror alert and severe floods helped project him as a strong, national leader. This translated into soaring poll leads in the summer of 2007 when contrasted with his young, less experienced Tory opposite, David Cameron.
Such was Brown’s unexpected popularity that by the time Party conference season rolled round, he was widely expected to call a snap autumn General Election to secure a personal mandate.
As we all know, it was a decision he famously flunked. Rather than go to the polls that year, ‘Bottler Brown’ postponed his date of destiny with the electorate. Northern Rock rumbled on and by mid-2008 Britain had been set alight by a financial crisis whose fires were still burning by May 2010, the very last moment at which Brown could call an election. However the indecisive result of that 2010 poll was interpreted, one sentiment was clear – the nation wanted rid of the ailing Prime Minister. 2007 would forever be perceived as Gordon Brown’s Great Missed Opportunity.
According to Matthew D’Ancona’s new book, In It Together, when the coalition government was formed it was George Osborne who pushed most vigorously for five-year, fixed-term parliaments. Given the experimental nature of the new government, it seemed to make sense to lock its partners together, snuff out endless electoral speculation and provide as much time as possible to get the economy back on track. The date of the next General Election was firmly set for May 2015.
Yet in a rather delicious irony, polling day probably cannot now come too soon for the Chancellor. He had hoped that by 2015, the structural deficit would have been eliminated, the economy would be in full recovery mode and the Conservatives would be rewarded with re-election in their own right. But the task of repair has been far harder than expected. Collectively we are set to borrow £190 billion more during the course of this parliament than planned at the time of the June 2010 Emergency Budget. The structural deficit remains stubbornly high. Cuts to public expenditure will have to continue beyond 2015. Growth remains fragile, the cost of living persistently high.
Perversely, it is in these circumstances that the Chancellor may have found 2014 a more agreeable time to fight an election. In a keynote speech earlier this month, George Osborne solidified a narrative with which he rightly feels comfortable. We are finally getting some growth in the system – at December’s Autumn Statement, the Chancellor was able to revise forecasts upwards and some City economists even believe that growth could hit 4% over the coming year. Osborne makes the case that this optimism is a direct result of his calm and careful stewardship of the economy and his willingness to make the ‘tough choices’. The compelling message for 2014 is that steady progress has been made in unpicking Labour’s mess, but there is more – much more – to be done.
There are now sixteen tricky months to navigate until the General Election, during which this message will be hard to sustain consistently. If powerful economic growth persists, the Chancellor will find himself under increasing pressure to cut taxes, encourage a hike in interest rates and protect existing benefits or restore old ones as polling day nears – all things which jeopardise the project to get the public finances on a stable footing. If, however, the chunky recovery stalls, questions will be asked about whether the upturn was in fact an unsustainable illusion based on cheap credit and an unhealthy boom in the housing market.
Ironically enough, had the coalition not locked itself into a fixed term, its Conservative wing may well have seen 2014 as a golden opportunity to secure a full mandate from the country. As ever, the great charm of politics is its sheer unpredictability.