If David Cameron had been told when he became the Prime Minister of United Kingdom that his Conservatives would go into 2014 trailing the Labour opposition by single-digits in the polls, he might have allowed himself a glass of his favoured Bordeaux red. Back in 2010, the year they came to power, the Tories expected the pain of fiscal austerity to open up a much wider gap — 20 points, some feared — and that was before two years of economic stagnation for which they never bargained.
The structural impediments to a Conservative victory in 2015 remain formidable: An electoral system that militates against them, the exodus to Labour of left-leaning Liberal Democrat voters aggrieved by their party’s coalition with the Tories, the populist rightwingery of the UK Independence party. But the real squeeze on the Labour vote is yet to come. Cameron knows from experience that it is the last 12 months of a parliament that test an opposition, as voters and the media start sizing up the people aspiring to govern them. As opposition leader, he saw his poll lead over Labour halve in the year before the election, costing him outright victory. Even Tony Blair’s landslide for Labour in 1997 was only half as spectacular as polls were suggesting a year earlier.
If history repeats itself, Labour will begin to be pressed in the vice of public suspicion and journalistic scrutiny next summer. But in order to prosper from their agonies, Cameron has to survive the next six months and emerge still within touching distance of Labour.
The first half of 2014 is an itinerary of political hazards for the government, starting with a winter crisis in the National Health Service (NHS). Despite months of preparation personally overseen by the prime minister, Downing Street is privately expecting a shortage of capacity in accident and emergency departments. Anyone who doubts the potential of such a transient event in one public service to shape national politics should read up on the January of 2000, when an NHS crisis spooked Blair into promising the vast expansion of health spending that more or less defined the last Labour government. And he, unlike Cameron, led a party that commanded the electorate’s implicit trust as custodians of the NHS.
As the government deals with straining hospitals, it will also be fending off a quarrel over bonuses in the City of London. Remuneration in the finance industry became viciously politicised as soon as the state stepped in to recapitalise ailing banks during the crash. During the bonus round of 2012, ministers implored Stephen Hester, the blameless chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, to waive his payment, thereby marking themselves out as slaves to the news cycle while sapping morale in the economy’s most important sector. And that was before a cut in the top rate of income tax poured more poison into the debate and before the strained living standards of most voters became the central issue in politics.
The only subject more rancorous than bankers’ pay is immigration, which now seriously rivals the economy as voters’ foremost concern. At the turn of the year, Bulgarians and Romanians gain the right to move to Britain as part of their accession to the European Union in 2007. The prospect of arrivals as numerous as those of the Poles in the past decade has hung over British politics this year. Exactly why a repeat of that experience will be a bad thing — for British wages, public services or cultural cohesion — is never spelt out with evidence. Nonetheless, the sentiment is intense enough to spur ministers into pioneering new ways of acting tough, whatever the price for their own dignity.
It is far from certain that Britain really will receive planeloads of “Bulga-manians”; unlike citizens of the 2004 accession states, who faced temporary restrictions in many rich EU countries, they can now go anywhere in Europe. Still, many who are already here are likely to normalise their status as legal migrants and go into the official figures. It should therefore be no effort for Ukip to talk up an immigration “crisis” in the run-up to the most menacing event the government faces next year: The European parliament elections in May.
Incumbent parties always perform badly in these contests, but the Tory predicament is all the more fraught because of the party’s internal politics. If the Conservatives are beaten by Ukip, the best that Cameron can hope for is intense pressure from his own right-wing to harden his policies on Europe and immigration. If Ukip finishes second, behind Labour, Cameron cannot brush off the result as a rejection of the establishment parties as a whole. Labour will look increasingly certain winners of the following year’s election and Cameron will strike his many critics inside his party as not only ideologically impure, but an overrated electoral politician. The prospect of them actually deposing him remains fanciful, but he may go into next summer’s parliamentary recess hounded by speculation about his leadership. An NHS crisis, the bonus round, immigration and the European elections. If Cameron can see off these four horsemen and take his summer holiday with a poll deficit not much wider than it is now, it suddenly becomes Ed Miliband’s turn to fight.
— Financial Times