Hanging in the Balance

On May 6, the U.K. will hold what David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, described on April 6 as “the most important election in a generation.” Given that this election is likely to either bring about Britain’s first post-election hung parliament since 1974, or the end of the Labour Party’s unprecedented 13 years in power, or, quite possible, both of the above, there is good reason to concur with Cameron’s assessment. Although The Economist deemed that the Conservatives held a “comfortable lead” over Labour in March, it has ebbed away in recent weeks. Britain’s political commentators are increasingly predicting that although the Conservatives will still win the most seats, “no single party will secure an overall majority,” thus spelling a hung parliament.

The election is also particularly significant because it will be the first that Gordon Brown will fight as Prime Minister. Indeed, since being handed that position in 2007 by Tony Blair, Brown has resisted repeated calls to hold an election, prompting Conservative Leader David Cameron to claim that “he doesn’t have the mandate [to govern].” However, with the five-year deadline on the election interim period forthcoming, Brown is able to delay no longer.

THE BLAIR YEARS It was May 1, 1997, when a largely unknown 43-year-old swept the Labour Party to power in one of Britain’s greatest landslide victories ever. Tony Blair’s promise was modernization and reform, both for Labour, which he unofficially rechristened “New Labour,” and for the nation. And, thanks to Labour’s remarkable 179-seat majority in the House of Commons, which ended their 18 years in opposition, Blair was soon able to implement three substantial reforms, namely granting the Bank of England (Britain’s version of the Fed) independence from government control, establishing devolved governments in Scotland and Wales, and ridding Britain’s archaic Upper House—the House of Lords—of all but 92 “hereditary Peers.” Moreover, with the 1998 “Good Friday Agreement,” Blair achieved what was widely hailed as the pinnacle of a long and drawn-out peace process with Northern Ireland, confirming his credentials as a leader on the world stage. With such feats so quickly achieved, Britain was for a while captivated by its new Prime Minister, described by even the New York Times as possessing “youthful exuberance … an unflagging smile and seemingly limitless charm.” Thus Blair—and the Labour Party—were well set to roar to a second enormous electoral victory in June 2001, a goal that was duly achieved.

However, 9/11, and the start of the Bush years spelled the beginning of what was to become an inseparable Bush-Blair—and, by proxy, U.S.-U.K.—alliance. Initially, Blair’s promise to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the U.S. post-9/11 proved highly popular. However, his previously unassailable popularity began to wane when he proceeded to lead Britain into a war in Iraq that was, from the outset, not supported in the U.K. Given the extent to which he had come to embody the Labour Party as a whole in the preceding years, it was little surprise that the demise of Blair also spelled the slow demise of his party. Thus, in stark contrast to Labour’s first two landslide victories, in 2005, Blair’s party was, in the words of The Guardian on May 6, 2005, “edg[ing] painfully into a ... third term,” with their majority slashed from 167 seats to 66. Just two years later, in June 2007, Blair left office amidst boos from anti-war protestors, handing over control to his long-time number two, Gordon Brown.


Illustration by Igor Simic

After storming to office in such “youthful exuberance,” Blair’s main legacy, like his American counterpart, is likely to remain Iraq. However, it seems that the legacy of Iraq will have important implications not only for Bush and Blair, but also for the U.S.-U.K. relationship. That is to say, Blair’s unpopular decision to commit British troops to Iraq is widely attributed to his willingness to “blindly” follow U.S. foreign policy. As a result, any hint of a British leader doing the same again—namely tagging along behind the U.S. with unquestioning subservience—is likely to be regarded with deep distrust by the British electorate. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that Britain’s politicians will show the same degree of loyalty to the U.S. as Blair in the near future. Given that Gordon Brown inherited Blair’s legacy, it is perhaps not surprising that the “special” U.S.-U.K. relationship deteriorated with remarkable swiftness after Blair’s departure. Indeed, according to The Guardian’s report on Aug. 23, Brown’s refusal to intervene to prevent the release of the Lockerbie plane-bomber last August resulted in “a vitriolic letter from the director of the FBI,” and the Daily Mail claimed on Sept. 11, 2009, that “Obama blast[ed] Brown” on the phone—just one of many signs of rising tension in recent months. However, the U.S.-U.K. relationship is not the only one that Brown has struggled to hold down. Indeed, having notoriously fallen out with Blair before becoming Prime Minister, Brown has since faced several attempts to topple him from within his own Cabinet, and now faces an uphill battle if he is to avoid losing his first election as Prime Minister.

GORDON BROWN Brown took over from Blair in 2007 after serving the previous ten years in Blair’s Cabinet as Chancellor of the Exchequer. His credibility, therefore, was staked on the fact that he had created ten years of economic stability, a claim which the economic crisis of 2008-9, in which the U.K. suffered its longest and deepest recession since 1945, was to put in a different light. Thus, lacking both credibility and an electoral mandate, it is perhaps unsurprising that Brown faced a number of early attempts to oust him from within his own Cabinet, with the Daily Telegraph quoting a minister on July 25, 2008, saying that “the Labour Party has no option but to replace him as leader or face certain defeat at the next general election.” However, as the election has drawn closer, Cabinet in fighting has been put to one side, and with the U.K.’s economy emerging out of recession in late 2009, what appeared to be an inevitable election defeat for Labour is no longer so clear cut.

THE CONSERVATIVES AND POSSIBLE ELECTION OUTCOMES After losing the 1997 election in such spectacular fashion, the Conservatives looked a party out of sorts for a number of years, and by 2005 they were onto their fifth party leader in eight years. However, since then they have found a leader in David Cameron, and a weakness in Labour, that has proved promising.

Cameron, at 43—the same age that Blair became PM—with good looks, energy, and sharp rhetorical skills, cuts a clear contrast to Brown. It was perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that in the wake of the economic crisis, and Labour’s post-Iraq downturn, he was able to advance the Conservatives to a consistent lead in the polls. However, with that lead—which reached a high of 15 points in mid-2009—steadily eroding, their prospects of electoral success are looking increasingly uncertain. Although they are still expected to win more seats than Labour, the polls are now pointing to a hung parliament, meaning that no party would hold an outright majority—an occurrence not seen after a general election since 1974. Should such an outcome prevail, there are two possible scenarios that would follow.

The first and most likely option is that the party with the most seats—expected to be the Conservatives—would form a minority government, and thus be required to “strike issue-by-issue deals [with other parties] to pass its business.” This would inevitably slow the passage of legislation, and inject a great deal of instability into the political process, but unlike the second option, it would by-pass the need for “time-consuming coalition management.” That second option, less common in Britain’s political history, is that either the Conservatives or the Labour Party would form a formal coalition with the third party—the Liberal Democrats—thus manufacturing a majority, but with the flexibility of the main party substantially hindered.

Should either of these outcomes prevail, governing would become much more cumbersome than the British system is used to, and as Professor Lucy Goodhart of Columbia’s Political Science department points out, it would also introduce “greater uncertainty” into the economy. Indeed, as Goodhart explains, “even though the election has not happened yet, [just] the potential for a hung parliament is already affecting one aspect of the U.K. economy ... the value of the pound sterling,” These signs led a group of leading economists last week to warn that “a hung parliament … would be the worst possible outcome for the U.K. stock market,” possibly plunging the U.K. back into recession. Consequently, should a hung parliament be the result of the election, it can be expected that, as in 1974, a second, “snap election” would be called relatively soon in the hope of establishing a more decisive outcome.

An alternative, and still distinctly possible outcome, is that the Conservatives will win sufficient votes for an absolute majority, enabling Cameron to form the first Conservative government since John Major’s ended in 1997. The big question hanging over British politics if that should happen, therefore, is what would a Conservative Britain in 2010 look like?

A CONSERVATIVE BRITAIN? Unsurprisingly, the central theme of this election has been and will continue to be Britain’s hard-hit economy. Indeed, as Goodhart points out, although “whichever party ... occupies government in the days after the election will face the same problem ... lower[ing] the size of the budget deficit,” the two major parties have presented substantially different stances on the best way forward, and thus “the identity of the incumbent is of great importance.” That is to say, Cameron, a keen advocate of small government, has proposed deep and “rapid spending cuts to deal with [the] alarming deficit of 12.6 percent of GDP,” according to The Economist. Brown, taking a line similar to Obama, argues that the economy is “too fragile to do without continued government largesse” in the short term. This has been a major bone of contention between the parties, with “the Conservatives [recently] criticizing Labour for raising National Insurance contributions (payroll tax) ... and saying that they would do more to cut spending.” Although the precise ways the Conservatives would cut spending are not entirely clear, what is known is that should Cameron triumph, the U.K.’s public sector will experience a pay freeze, the pension age may increase, and tax breaks for children will be tightened. At this cost, Cameron hopes to reverse the trend in Britain’s rapidly growing budget deficit with immediate effect. Brown, on the other hand, is more willing to increase taxes to fund the deficit, although he too acknowledges that before long public spending will need to be substantially curbed.

Internationally, Cameron is committed to Afghanistan, and having vowed in October to “send more troops” to the region, the U.S. can continue to count on a British presence there no matter the outcome of the election. Nevertheless, concerning the U.S.-U.K. relationship directly, it looks like there will be no hasty return to the “Blair years.” Indeed, already on Oct. 21, the Times reported that President Obama “has voiced concern” to Cameron over his EU stance. That is to say, Cameron, and the Conservatives more generally, have traditionally been only lukewarm towards the EU, opposing what they call “the steady and unaccountable intrusion of the European Union into almost every aspect of our lives.” Whilst such a stance has not troubled previous U.S. Presidents, who have been happy to deal with the U.K. on a separate bi-lateral basis, Obama seems keen to deal with “a strong and united Europe” as a whole—in line with his preference for multi-lateral rather than bi-lateral relations. If this is a sign of things to come, one can expect—or at least hope—for the “special” relationship between the U.S. and U.K. to normalize in the coming years.

With thanks to Professor Goodhart of Columbia’s Political Science department for her assistance.