With much of Southern Britain submerged, and a by-election in Wythenshawe and Sale East, February has brought a deluge of political news and provided a bumper start to the final full year of this Government. The fact that flooding has been largely confined to either safe Tory or highly marginal seats lends a new political dynamic to an age-old problem. David Cameron’s pledge that ‘money is no object’ is widely viewed as a misstep for two reasons. One, as demonstrated by Patrick McLoughlin’s contradiction of the PM’s line, because this commitment is untenable. Two, because there is real anger in the North East and Humberside that, when they were confronted with similar devastation recently, no such open-ended promises were made. Cameron made an attempt to push back on this criticism by visiting Blackpool today – this will likely prove something of a damp squib. COBRA’s worst fear is that a major infrastructure failure might emerge – such as a breech in the Thames Barrier – with dire economic and political consequences. This highlights the real long-term impact of the floods – a renewed political debate about infrastructure.
Infrastructure is usually a quiet, too often ignored, issue in British politics. The incentives are rarely aligned to make starting a conversation about capital projects politically rewarding – NIMBYs are louder and more organised than the beneficiaries and whatever rewards there may be are far off in terms of the political cycle.
But the floods, combined with a series of ongoing controversies around investment – from HS2 to the battle with the EU over Britain’s plans for new nuclear – mean infrastructure will have a higher profile in the coming election. This has benefits and risks for companies that are involved in inward investment. Infrastructure being higher up the agenda – with a general acknowledgement from politicians and the public that investment is required to help the UK adapt to the changing climate – means openings for business. But the ‘political football’ status of projects like HS2, over which senior Labour Shadow Cabinet Ministers such as Andy Burnham are threatening to rebel, exacerbates risks to long-term projects and point to a potential break down in consensus. Expect heated argument about which party is best-placed to provide the necessary capital investment to boost British resilience – and expect unusual alliances along the way. Some right wing climate change sceptics, for example, see mileage in moving off the debate about whether climate change is man-made and instead focussing on the argument that adaptation, rather than any attempt at prevention, is now the key issue. This could play well to a public who are worried about rising fuel costs and about the impact of inclement weather.
We have also seen a rare outbreak of unity and warmth between the parties this month – as the Government teamed up with Labour in a concerted effort to pull the rug from out under Alex Salmond. Denying Scotland access to a currency union, and therefore to full independence within the Sterling zone, is a game-changer in the referendum campaign. The British state is finally fighting back against the, thus far one-sided, narrative that has been shaped by the SNP. Whether this move will backfire, and provoke anger amongst undecided Scots, is an unknown – but sources within the Better Together campaign say that they have focus grouped the messaging repeatedly. Nicola Sturgeon’s counter-argument, that there will be a negative impact on businesses which operate across the Border, holds some weight – until one remembers that it is her party advocating separation in the first place. Unionists are confident that this display of unity and strength will be effective. For those with an eye on the potential EU referendum in 2017 this is instructive. We can expect a similar display of Establishment pressure on the side of remaining within the European Union.
The by-election in Wythenshawe and Sale East was a disaster for the Conservative Party, a disappointment for UKIP, a relief for Labour and an embarrassment for the Liberal Democrats. By placing second, UKIP fulfilled the bare minimum of their own projections. But, at around 10,000 behind the victor, they have failed to make the kind of headway into Labour heartlands that they have long promised. Instead, they appear to have stripped votes from the Tories and the Lib Dems. Worth noting, though, is Nigel Farage’s claim that UKIP is succeeding in energising ‘non-voters’ – those who have become disengaged from electoral politics. This is backed up by the recent Lodestone Political Survey which found that UKIP is in second place amongst those who failed to vote in 2010 but plan to this time – capturing 18% of the apathetic vote.
Nick Clegg won’t be too worried about losing his deposit in this by-election; his party are now relentlessly focused on protecting their seats rather than advancing into new territory. But Cameron needs to think seriously about his party’s third place result. Sale is relatively affluent and lies within Trafford, which has a Conservative Council. If he can’t pick up a decent showing in this seat, his chances of holding Tory seats in the north (let alone gaining new ones) look very slim indeed. Labour expected to hold the seat and should take no real succour from managing to do so. But this result does vindicate their by-election strategy – to go for fast paced, short campaigns which cut UKIP off at the knees.
Long after the flood waters have drained and the sandbags are cleared away, the events of February 2014 will linger on the political landscape. It has reminded us – as has, north of the Border, the declaration of ‘no UK, no Pound’ – of just how vulnerable we really are. Such a mood could swing voters in either direction. Fear of chaos lends the Conservative Party (and the status quo) an advantage. The desire to be looked after will see people looking again at Labour. What is certain, though, is that difficult and expensive infrastructure questions will be a lot harder to kick into the long, and soggy, grass in the near future.