This time of year is replete with political predictions (indeed we had some yesterday from our Lib Dem columnist Stephen Tall and some today from economist Andrew Lilico), so I’ll resist the urge to add to the collection.
Instead, here are five trends, battles and dilemmas to watch in 2014:
- Labour’s battle between miserablism and reality: Having predicted the worst time and again, and repeatedly been proved wrong, the Opposition are struggling to swallow the growing economic good news. Their natural instincts – and their main financiers – urge them to talk about how bad everything is, but they are at risk of being seen to talk Britain down, to enjoy bad news and to have learned no lessons from their failures in government. While some Shadow Ministers want to adapt to new times, others want to please their donors, cling to a broken ideology and justify their past mistakes (cough, Ed Balls) – it remains to be seen who will win out.
- The backbench amenders: The parliamentary trend in recent years has been towards more independence of mind among backbenchers, and away from all-powerful Whips. In 2013, that process reached new heights with the development of an effective backbench amendment machine. First the Baron/Bone amendment secured an EU Referendum Bill, then John Baron caused chaos with his campaign on the Defence Reform Bill, and the year ended with an amendment from Nigel Mills troubling the architects of the Immigration Bill. Backbench rebels also won the day over Syria, delivering a painful defeat to Cameron and Hague. This is all the outcome of a positive force – our MPs are shifting their allegiance from the Whips to their voters and their consciences – but it is an almighty pain for the Government. The question is not if it will happen again, but when, and on which topic?
- George Osborne’s balancing act: The outcome of the next election may rest on the decisions the Chancellor makes this year, particularly in his penultimate Budget. Labour will be as desperate to find new Pasty Tax-style problems as he will be to avoid them. His task is made more tricky by the messaging tightrope he has to walk: he must simultaneously demonstrate success in the mission to rescue the economy, while also making clear that it will require another term in power to finish the job. If voters believe he has failed to turn things round, he is sunk – but if they think all is well again, they may think Labour’s profligacy is affordable once more.
- Nigel Farage riding a tiger: Few people in British electoral history have successfully led a new party permanently into the political mainstream – and it’s a testament to Farage’s wiles that he has managed to get this far. Short of an unforeseen disaster, UKIP will likely win most votes in the European election in May and gain more council seats on the back of that success. But only this week we have seen signs that Farage’s party is a difficult tiger to ride – it took less than 24 hours for grassroots outrage to force him to water down his message on Syrian refugees. The more support he attracts, the more he builds his mythos, the greater the expectations and assumptions his own followers make about him – and the harder it becomes to live up to them.
- Tory moods in May: The likely success of UKIP in May’s elections will bring on a crucial test for the Conservatives. Those who use every opportunity to bash David Cameron will undoubtedly do so, but the key question is whether others will join them – and how the leadership will react. Another intervention like Ken Clarke’s disastrous outing a few days before the 2013 local elections would make things worse, a redoubling of Halfon-esque appeals to those voters whom the Party has so far failed to excite would make things better. A few days in May will give a great insight into how internal Conservative politics has – or hasn’t – changed.
Whichever way things turn out, I hope you’ll all be joining us at ConservativeHome to follow the year’s political news and views. Happy New Year!