MPs depart for their Christmas break after an extraordinary year in British politics. Like a failing, long-running TV show, democracy has served up a series of increasingly unbelievable and outlandish plot twists in 2015. It’s kept us all glued but it’s also unnerving and a fair few MPs, mostly on the Labour benches, will be hoping for a miraculous, Dallas-like deliverance over the festive season. But short of Chuka Umuna waking to discover Yvette Cooper sat in the big office at Brewer’s Green (“I’ve just had the most dreadful dream”…) we are where we are.
At first glance the ground looks fair to good for the Conservative Party and poor to dreadful for Labour. The Tories enjoy a double-digit lead, the Prime Minister rates better with almost every demographic going (on almost every influential aspect of personality and judgment) than Jeremy Corbyn and the polling trends towards a haemorrhaging of all but newer, kinder Labour loyalist voters. What’s more, a series of measures will further weaken the opposition over the coming Parliamentary year. Short money (given by the taxpayer to support Labour) is set to be substantively rationed, the electoral boundaries are to be redrawn to end Labour’s built-in advantage and around a million of Britain’s youngest and poorest voters just dropped off the electoral register. None of this bodes well. But all is not lost and in 2016 we can expect the media spotlight – currently transfixed by Labour’s internal Cold War – to move slowly back to the Government.
Most of David Cameron’s 2015 was spent on a kind of slow victory lap – a testament to his (and everyone else’s) surprise at winning the May election. Truth is, he hasn’t suffered much from scrutiny as Labour turned in on itself for a Leadership election and then for a seemingly endless howl of rage at the results that election produced. That has enabled him, via sleight of hand, to keep simmering Tory tensions on Europe pretty well out of sight. His chances of continuing to pull off such a trick for much longer are slim. As the referendum nears, and his chances of securing real reform fade, Cameron will be more and more exposed. As John Major’s speech this week – essentially ridiculing Cameron’s strategy from a pro-EU position – makes clear; almost no-one actually believes in the Prime Minister’s approach.
For reasons of party management, Cameron has had to make the EU question very personal over the last decade. He has staked his authority and his honour on it. That served him well when trying to quash minor rebellions, but it leaves him completely intertwined with a position and a policy that has the potential to drag him under. Having already said that he will not serve a full term, plenty of impatient eurosceptic Conservatives see the coming battle as a chance to kill two birds with one stone: end or weaken Britain’s membership of the EU and end Cameron’s leadership of the party. Some potential contenders for Cameron’s throne are weighing up the risks and the benefits of allying themselves with the Brexiteers in the hope they will repay the favour come a leadership election.
Overseas, our two closest allies are gearing up to Presidential elections in which far-right populists could run the establishment to a close race. Trump in the US and Le Pen in France pose existential (if still, on balance, improbable) threats to Britain’s global relationships. It remains unlikely that either will actually make it to the top-job. But 2015 should have taught us that you can’t always count on political gravity to kick-in in time. What’s more, war in the Middle East rumbles on yet again. And developments in Syria have ramifications at home where, after a difficult but well-managed party conference, that country’s woes have become totemic for Labour’s internal battles.
So what does 2016 hold? After the last twelve months, only a fool would offer ironclad predictions of outcomes. And a Trump or Le Pen victory would cause an explosion of ‘unknown-unknowns’. When it comes to the domestic political scene, though, we can make some safe guesses. Expect to see power struggles in both main parties. David Cameron will be attempting an orderly transfer to George Osborne whilst unlikely and temporary alliances are formed to block his path. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn will seek to further entrench his power over his own party whilst his Parliamentary colleagues seek means to resist his momentum (in verb and noun form). Prepare for plenty of Tories asking “who can stop George?” And lots of Labourites asking the very Dallasesque question; “Who’ll shoot JC?”