The Conservative leader is probably going to win Britain’s election Thursday—and will be forced to make the kind of unpopular fiscal moves that could doom his party for a generation. Plus, Peter Stothard on Tony Blair's surprising political afterlife.
As Britons trudge to the polls on Thursday, they do so knowing that none of the men who aspire to be the next prime minister have been fully honest with the electorate about the horrors of Britain's looming fiscal crisis. The country may have decided that the country needs change, but it's also afraid of that change and the austerity it will demand. Unless the polls are wrong, it seems that David Cameron will be asked to clean up the mess. It is not an enviable task.
The new government is going to be in hock to the bond market as London demands urgent action on both Britain's ballooning fiscal deficit and a national debt that, on current forecasts, will reach an eye-watering £1.4 trillion (about $2.1 trillion) by the end of the next parliament. Simply servicing that debt could cost £80 billion a year—or roughly half the current annual deficit, which, this year, amounts to fully 12 percent of GDP.
Someone has to be prime minister and the odds remain that David Cameron will be handed the Black Spot by an ungrateful, querulous nation.
As the economic historian Niall Ferguson puts it, "There is a very real danger that [things] could now spiral, Greek style, out of all control if foreign confidence in sterling slumps and long-term interest rates rise." Ferguson adds, in an article in The Spectator, that a Prime Minister Cameron would also need "to initiate talks with the IMF in case external support proves to be necessary."
No wonder Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, warned recently that the next government might have to take so many unpopular decisions that it risks being out of power for a generation.
Nevertheless, someone has to be prime minister and the odds remain that David Cameron will be handed the Black Spot by an ungrateful, querulous nation. Though the Conservatives may win the most seats, they may also fall short of the 326 they need for an overall majority in the House of Commons.
Technically, Gordon Brown will remain prime minister until a new government is formed and could, in a hung parliament with no commanding party, try and form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. The parliamentary arithmetic may allow such a deal; it's not clear public opinion would tolerate it.
That leaves two further options: a Tory-Liberal alliance or a minority Conservative ministry. If Cameron's party wins more than 300 seats, a deal with Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats seems unlikely as Cameron, like Stephen Harper in Canada, will try to govern alone even if that means he's in the minority. A minority Tory ministry would dare the Lib Dems—supposedly the champions of a "new" and "cooperative" politics—to bring down the government and spark another, unwanted general election.
The new government, whatever its constitution, won't have the luxury of a honeymoon. Senior Tories warn that the new government must seize the initiative immediately, setting out plans for immediate and longer-term spending cuts within weeks in order to reassure the bond market.
George Osborne, the likely new Chancellor of the Exchequer, will introduce an emergency budget within 50 days, spelling out at least £6 billion in immediate cuts before conducting a government-wide spending review in the autumn that will produce a template for further reductions in the years to come. But even Conservatives admit that their plans are fluid and that announced measures, such as a pay freeze for 80 percent of government workers, do not go nearly far enough.
Nor is there any sign that economic growth will help mend the fiscal fences. Though the European Commission has revised growth expectations to 1.9 percent for 2010 and 2.1 percent in 2011, these upgraded figures fall well short of the current government's heroically optimistic forecast of 3 to 3.5 percent growth next year.
Even allowing for these difficult times, however, a minority Conservative government could be more stable than many think. Although Labour will fiercely oppose spending cuts this year—warning of a "double-dip" recession—it is likely to be preoccupied with a leadership election to choose Gordon Brown's successor. In any case, the party is broke and in no position to fight a new election even if it wanted to. Better, perhaps, to let the Conservatives stew in power for a year.
Most probably, then, Cameron will soldier on for a year, laying the foundations for a more balanced, sustainable fiscal future before calling an election when (or if) growth returns.
It is not a pretty picture and far removed from the sunshine and optimism with which Cameron began his leadership, but it is the grim reality. The only saving grace is that the opposition won't want another election this year any more than does the public.
Alex Massie is a former Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph. He writes for The Spectator and blogs at www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie.