There’s never been a British general election campaign like this one! With just over a week to go before the May 6 election day it seems from the opinion polls that big changes could be on the way.
Here the Brits stand, midway between a Continental tradition of coalition government with multiple parties, and a US-style presidential battle between party leaders. The talk in Britain is of a hung parliament with no clear majority, of coalitions and of new voting systems. For some this is a threat (“look at Belgium!”), for some a promise (“look at Germany!”).
It’s the televised debates between the party leaders which have transformed this election. Nick Clegg, relatively unknown in Britain, former member of the European Parliament, member of Leon Brittan’s cabinet in the 1990s and now leader of the UK Liberal Democrats, was given his chance to shine. In an electorate still bitter at the parliamentary expenses scandal Clegg was able to distance himself and his party from the two parties which have dominated British politics for the last 60 years and to channel some of the indignation of the public in his favour.
His appeal to younger and sceptical voters seems to have been particularly telling. We’ll see after the third debate on Thursday April 29 whether the Liberal Democrats can sustain their poll rating which puts them on level pegging with the Conservatives!
Britain’s relations with the EU have played a curious role in the debate so far. For both Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown the Conservatives’ secession from the European People’s Party was a stick to beat David Cameron. “Joining with a bunch of nutters” said Clegg. Cameron refused to be drawn in response other than to refer to the Polish president’s tragic death. Cameron might after all be prime minister in two weeks’ time and need all the friends he can get.
Cameron was also circumspect on EU policy issues, providing just enough to feed the appetite of a sceptical party (“in Europe, but not run by Europe”) and attacking the failure to hold a referendum on Lisbon, but giving no hostages to fortune. Take immigration for instance, which is one of the most emotive issues in this election. David Cameron, as well as Brown and Clegg, repeatedly stressed that Conservative policies would be directed at controlling the flow of “non-EU” immigrants, with passing reference to future accessions but not even a token threat to migration within the Union.
The catch phrase of the first of the debates was “I agree with Nick”, which did Mr Clegg no harm, but Gordon Brown did attack him for being anti-American – a clear confirmation of the British prime minister’s foreign policy instincts which give as much weight to the trans-Atlantic relationship as to Europe. Given his party’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq, it was an accusation that Clegg could live with.
It is impossible to predict how the euro-sceptic UK Independence Party will do on May 6. There is little sign that Europe is playing a major part in the general campaign, but any revolt against the main parties could translate into votes for UKIP and there are parts of the country such as Cornwall where anti-EU feeling runs strongly.
No one is counting their chickens. There’s little doubt that the Liberal Democrats will do well in terms of total votes in next month’s vote, but this could well translate into second place in many constituencies – the consequence of the first-past-the-post electoral system. My own prediction, or rather guess, is that the demand for change and poor turnout will hit the Labour vote, that the Conservatives will secure a small overall majority and that the Liberals will strengthen their position in the House of Commons. This would not be a comfortable outcome if it put a newly elected prime minister David Cameron in hock to a europhobe fringe in his own party.