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Saturday, October 31, 2020

UK Election: The stakes could not be higher

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The Guardian Newspaper’s Political Correspondent in the United Kingdom (UK), Andrew Sparrow, who runs a daily blog called “PoliticsLive with Andrew Sparrow”, once, said, in the build-up to the General Election in the UK, that it serves politicians better when they goad the public into thinking that an election facing them is one of the most important.  That is completely true, especially when the public knows that they are faced with a choice.  He was reacting to Prime Minister David Cameron’s assertion that this year’s General Election “is one of the most important in a generation”. 

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And, on 7 May, 2015, which is less than five weeks by the time of writing this piece, electorate in the UK are faced with a clear choice. A choice as stark as never before. A choice that will change, or take Britain, one of the most powerful countries in the 20th century, and still a powerful player on the international affairs in the 21st century, to a completely different trajectory.

This is because the two parties that are likely going to end up forming a government – currently all opinion polls are predicting a “cliff-hanging”, “nail-biting’, and” knife edging”’ tight election race – are having a different vision for Britain.  The Conservative or Tory Party of current Prime Minister what to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) if he wins the election.  Many EU “bureaucrats”, to use the Tory party term, are opposed to this. The French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, was on record, saying that Britain cannot cherry-pick what it wants from the EU, and he warned: “Europe cannot be treated like al acarte”. 

Someone of the areas that the Conservative party wants renegotiation on, like freedom of movement and changing the statute books to boost the competitive sharpness of a sclerotic EU,  are receiving ambivalence reaction from across the EU. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, touted as one of the most powerful figures in the EU, made in clear during her visit to Britain late last years that “the freedom of movement clause, a principle that underpins the values of the EU, is non-negotiable”.

The Prime Minister David Cameron is adamant that he can still get his wishes. A warning signal to his “failed” mission was sent to him when EU leaders 26 – 2 voted overwhelmingly for the former Premier of Luxembourg, Jean Claude Junker to be the EU Commissioner, a candidate Cameron campaigned vigorously to defeat, as he is largely seen in the UK across the political spectrum as “a federalist”. 

For his part, Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party, the EU referendum, which Cameron promised to stage in 2017 when he returns to Number 10 Downing Street – the seat of Britain power, is anathema. The conservative party, he reminds the British people, are going to plunge the country into an unnecessary debate for two years after the elections. 

EU referendum or not, majority of British people want to have their say on the country’s membership in the EU. This partly explains the rise of the far-right anti-EU, anti-mass-migration party United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). By revealing in Bloomberg business centre, as Cameron did in 2012 to stage a referendum in 2017, his critics says that he is pandering to UKIP. 

Top Labour party grandees – shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Copper and Ed Miliband himself, are convinced that  David Cameron cannot built the alliance needed to renegotiate Britain’s relationship in the EU, accusing him of “burning bridges, rather building alliances”, the Labour soundbite on the issue. It is clear that if Britain “pull up the drawbridge”, as the Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg warned during last year’s EU debate with Nigel Farage, “3million jobs depending on Britain membership of the EU will be lost, and Britain will be an inward, not outward looking country, terrorism, crime and climate change will be hard to solve”. 

Prime Minister David Cameron is under pressure to resist members of his party, specifically the powerful 1922 Committee, not to make a “strategic blunder with Britain’s future”.  It was no wonder then Labour on the first day of the official campaign of the election on Monday 28th March decided to launch their campaign on the issue. The idea behind it was to lure business support as it is to remind Britons the choice they faced.

Another defining change that may come from a Conservative government is Britain’s membership of the EU Strasbourg court on Human Rights.  The Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, once floated the idea that Britain will withdraw from the European Court on Human Rights. This is because its rulings cannot be reversed by member states. The Labour party is having none of it, dismissing it as “Tories lurching to the right”.   

 

The coalition that endured dissolved

One that faithful Monday the first Fixed Term of the British Parliament, which was introduced by the coalition in 2010, came to an end.  It was a busy day for party leaders. The dissolving of Parliament singles the official start of the election campaign. As tradition demands, the Prime Minister should pay a visit to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen to seek her consent for the dissolution of Parliament. 

 

Before his departure to the Royal Palace, David Cameron was having that inevitable goodbye with his junior coalition partners the Lib Dems.

They stood in front of the cameras and photographers for photo-ops. Later they each joined their cabinet party teams for photo. It was all done in lighthearted fashion. What a long journey the coalition endured since 2010 in the Rose Garden in 10 Downing Street. Many pessimist pundits in Westminster opined, with the benefit of hindsight wrongly, that the coalition would stutter. Yes, the coalition was tested to it limits. On the journey strong arguments, rifts, and briefing against each other happened, but again as the two principals of the coalition will like to remind us, not the scale of the Blair-Brown rivalry in the Labour Party since 1997-2009 when Brown took over.  

Many of their legislation was passed in Parliament successfully. And in Public all the coalition members showed unity. Even if they have their strong arguments it is only known in the cabinet, or the less cabinet know as “quad”, which comprises two top players from each party. Nick Clegg and his Party’s economic spokesperson Danny Alexander, who is chief Secretary to the Treasury. On the Conservative site it is David Cameron and George Osborne, the mastermind Chancellor of the Exchequer. 

The worthy exemplary relationship they showed throughout the five years life of the Parliament submerged the rifts that emerged in public between some of their Ministers. For instances, Former Education Secretary Michael Gove, combative and sparky with a fierce intellect, public spat with Clegg over the Lib Dems education flagship policy School meals, and the row between Business, Skills, and Innovation Secretary Vice Cable with George Osborne over departmental cuts, Norman Baker’s explosive resignation as a Minister for the Lib Dems in the Home Office against Theresa May all tested the stamina of the coalition. But it endured.

 

Cameron launched a withering 

campaign against Miliband

When the “Westminster village” was in a febrile, campaign mood, both the Prime Minister David Cameron and Nick Clegg, in his capacity as head of the Lord Privy Council, paid a separate visit to the Queen. David Cameron went first, and after his audience with the Queen the Deputy Prime Minister followed. One would have thought that the always-warmed nature of the Queen would have softened the Prime Minister for the day. But how wrong! 

Immediately after disembarking from his vehicle from the Palace, he took the unprecedented step, launching a withering attack on the Labour party and its leader. He described Miliband as “weak” and a “socialist from Hampstead, who will borrow more money, hike taxes for working families”. The attack was part of the dangers of a Miliband government that Cameron wants to magnify. At the Conservative spring conference he described the Labour party members as “hypocritical, holier-than-thou, hopeless, sneering socialist”.  Foreseeing that people will accuse him of negative campaigning against Ed Miliband’s personality, he continued: “when it comes to who is the Prime Minister of our country, the personal is national”. 

Constitutional purists were furious why he used the doorsteps of 10 Downing Street to launch such assault on the leader of the opposition.  Even his Tory “mother” Margaret Thatcher resisted the urge to maul her opponents on the doorsteps of 10 Downing Street. Neil Kinnock, who was once described as her weakest opponents, was spared by her. Now question is: Why did Cameron go for the jugular?

The simple answer is that the opinion polls are not going the Tory way. The Tory campaign strategist Lynton Crosby promised the Tories that the “cross-over” in the polls will happen after the budget speech. That came and past and still they remained stagnant in the 34 percents. Now he is saying after Easter. We will have to wait and see, but Labour are tied with them, as UKIPs popularity is waning.  

Crosby was clear when he was admonishing the Tory team on Friday before their departure to their constituency to campaign that every day till election day they must bang on the economic competence of the conservative party, its long-term economic plan that is turning the country around, and the chaos that will come from Miliband and Labour. Any day that this is not drummed up, he reported to have said, is a wasted day.  So the task was given to Prime Minister Cameron to start scattering the guns on Labour.  And where better to do this than the doorsteps of 10 Downing Street when many people are tuned to their radios and Television to listen to the last major speech of the Parliament.

 

Paxo grilled the 

would-be Prime Minister

The former BBC Newsnight anchor Jeremy Paxman made his first foray into interviewing since his resignation by interviewing the two candidates likely to be Prime Minister. In front of a studio audience demographically representing the UK, he grilled both Cameron and Miliband on their economic policies, personal strengths and weaknesses, austerity, and the National Health Service, which is a big issue in the election, as it is facing an over-stretch staff, failing cancer test, missing targets,  and A (Accident) and E (Emergency) pressures. 

With his customary brutal, direct, blunt, aggressive way of questioning, which he is renowned for, Jeremy Paxman, seriously duffled up David Cameron with his questions. Here is a taster: Jeremy:  David Cameron could you live on Zero Hours Contracts?  David: “ Look, what we’ve got to do is to make sure that we build a strong economy that will work for people, get them out of dole and in work so that they can have the economic security that comes with a pay packet………” Jeremy interrupted twice to ask the same question, almost bring to mind his moment with the former Conservative leader Michael Howard when he asked him 12 times the same question. In the end Cameron conceded that he cannot live on one. Zero Hours Contracts and Food Banks are said to be proliferating in the UK and Food banks, which the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, recently said during the launch of a parliamentary report on the issues, “reminds me of the poverty I see when I travel to Africa”. 

Cameron was tetchy, fidgety and edgy throughout the interview. According to Andrew Sparrow, who was live blogging the interview, “it was the first time for ages that I saw David Cameron being unsettled in an interview”. I couldn’t agree more. Cameron is one of the slickest interviewees among British politicians. Perhaps I should expect that from a former PR man. With his head tilted one side, hands swinging as he emphasizes his points, looking direct to the camera in a statesmanlike pose, he can tackle tough questions with deft efficiency. Ah, his New Year interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr. What a solid, good one! I still have it in my archives, watching it regularly due to the sublime supply-and-demand exchanges between Marr and Cameron.

Ed Miliband emerged from the interview unscathed, much to the surprise of the Tories and some Westminster commentators.  For the man who is portrayed by the press as useless, performing splendidly dumfounded many viewers.  When Jeremy Paxman asked him about the exchanges he had with one man on the tube the other day, and the man told him that Ed with the Russian President Putin in the same house, Putin will tear him on the floor and come out. The idea behind the question being that he (Ed Miliband) is weak and cannot withstand strong leaders like Putin when he is Prime Minister. A smiley Ed, asked: “Am I tough enough? Hell, yes. The audience gave him a rapturous applause, which Cameron didn’t have.

When Jeremy Paxman put it to him that he cannot win a majority, and will form a government with the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the event of a hung parliament, he challenged him directly, saying: “ Whilst you are important, Jeremy, you are not more important than the British electorate who will decide this election”. Mouth curled up in a shape of laughter, his right leg on top of the left, with a look of disdain on his face, Jeremy the tough interrogator of British politicians laughed it off. 

 

And then the Business 

Letter Bombshell came

One the second day of the official campaign when Ed Miliband was enjoying a “post-Paxman bounce” in the polls, the Daily Telegraph Newspaper splashed on its front page a letter endorsed by 103 business leaders, who approved of “the conservative-led government economic policies”, and warned that veering off the current economic course will put “jobs, business, and investment at risk”. 

What was interesting with this letter was that a similar exercise was done exactly the same day 1st April in 2010.  The economic policies Ed Miliband unveils like increasing tax rate for business to 50p from 45, capping their bonus, increasing the minimum wage to 8pounds, and banning ZHCs are seen by the Tories and Right-Wing Newspapers in the UK as “anti-business, anti-growth and anti-investment”.   

The point with this ritual for the Daily Telegraph is that it shapes the news for the day, and force their rival competitors to check who is on the list or not, with a background check on all. Within hours after the story broke out, Labour’s Business, Skills and Innovation shadow, Chukka Ummuna (he is of Nigerian parentage) appeared on Sky News to dismiss the story as “not a surprise, and published by a Conservative-supporting Newspaper”.  

The Office for National Statics released their quarterly growth figures the same day, pointing out that productivity in the UK is at its lowest since the end of the Second World War, wages are flattening, and the growth trend was slow compared to pre-crash levels. This undermined the Telegraphy story. Paul Johnson, the Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), an independent, respected thinthank, also noted that the letter was “bit unhelpful and flaky”. 

For their part, Labour said the letter was choreographed, organized and coordinated at Conservative headquarters. Before long, as the News was swirling, Sky Sophie Rigby revealed that the letter was coordinated by the Conservative Co-Chairman Andrew Feldman.

The problem with the anti-Labour Business letter was its timing. It was a potent electoral weapon for the Tories, but they deployed it too early. Because the following day was supposed to be the leader’s debate, and media attentions will focus on it. Before the day ends, Labour responded with a counterpunched with their won “working people letter”, published in the Daily Mirror Newspaper. And a background check was done, which proved that many of their signatories were hedge fund managers, tax evaders and dodgers, and some ennobled and Knighted thanks to David Cameron.

 

 Amadou Camara studies Political Science at the University of The Gambia. He is a researcher on British politics, and the Communications Officer of the National Youth Parliament. He can be reached at: [email protected] 

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