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2012 – the year in politics

Of all the political leaders and their families sitting down to enjoy their festive celebrations, Miliband’s was probably the cheeriest of the bunch. Having turned a five-point poll deficit to a solid and consistent eight-point lead by the end of the year, it’s not hard to imagine Ed cheerily pouring himself a drink or two with a satisfied grin.

The year started shakily, with questions over his leadership and union opposition to Labour over support for the public sector pay freeze, as well the Eric Joyce scandal.

However, over the course of the year the questions over his leadership have all but evaporated. With every prime minister’s questions comes improvement. His budget response and his conference speech both went down a treat, reaching back into Tory history, before the Thatcherites won the heart of the party, to recapture the banner of one nation and make an audacious play for the centre ground. For the first time it was really possible to envisage him as prime minister. 

We hear rumours about Labour ministers who are going to vote against equal marriage. There are those who fear we have walked into a Tory trap on welfare. One nation Labour needs fleshing out and questions remain on policy. However, unity seems to be Labour’s buzzword of 2012, with no big internal divisions as has happened after previous defeats.

Over in the Cameron household, with the gaping splits in the Conservative party, the PM will probably just be happy to get a way from it all, spend time with the family and the Chipping Norton set, and enjoy a horseride (provided he can find a horse). The divisions won’t go away though. 

There’s equal marriage, pesky high Tory right-wingers and, inevitably, Europe. Surely another Conservative leader can’t be ripped apart over Europe? George’s “omnishambles” budget was so horrendously misjudged that even The Sun’s verdict was that he might as well “just get a box of matches, set fire to his budget and start all over again”.

Andrew Lansley’s health and social care bill (a top-down, expensive and unwanted NHS reorganisation) rallied the left and re-toxified the NHS as an issue for the Conservatives. Plebgate and Nadine Dorries’ jungle adventure made 2012 a tough one for the Tories. 

No wonder poll figures have begun to slide, especially with the economy slipping back into a recession. Perhaps it is the economy, off all things, that explains why the party is so resolute. Osborne and Cameron are still more trusted by the public than Ed Miliband, and Labour is yet to create a convincing and coherent alternative. It could be their Achilles heel in 2015. An in-out referendum on Europe could bring Ukip supporters back, contributing to a majority.

Over in the Clegg household, perhaps the pertinent question is whether Christmas has been cancelled? As if being an Arsenal fan in 2012 hasn’t been bad enough, there can be little doubt it was another disastrous year for the Liberal Democrats – especially for Clegg himself.

His apology on the trebling of tuition fees just didn’t cut it with students and he is still seen as a toxic brand. May local elections saw the further decimation of their council and local politics base. Vince Cable’s friends, especially the irrepressible Lord Oakeshott, consistently brief that he would make a much better leader.

Chris Huhne’s forced resignation over speeding claim charges was a relief for the Tories but a bitter blow to Liberal Democrat activists up and down the country who liked having an outspoken minister in cabinet. Another massive blow was the abandonment of House of Lords reform, a key Liberal Democrat measure. For too many, the Liberal Democrats have not been an anchor to the Tories in government but an accomplice. No wonder a leaked memo suggests their new strategy is to attack the Tories as the party of the rich.

2015 is a long way off, but perhaps for the first time all the pieces are in play. To win, Labour must remain united and reassure the public that they can be trusted with the economy. For the Conservatives, Cameron must try to ensure they do not appear too divided and out of touch with the people. For the Liberal Democrats, the questions about Nick Clegg’s leadership and cosiness with the Tories just won’t go away.

All the while, Ukip have begun to move out of the shadows and onto the stage, a terrifying prospect both for power-eager Conservatives and progressives alike. Good results in by-elections and local elections show that they can no longer afford to be written off or ignored. Ukip, in time, might prove the real winners of 2012.

15/01/2013

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