The Known Unknowns

There was some speculation in the last couple of days about whether the Queen’s Speech will shift the political terrain. We won’t know until the next round of polls arrive, but I would be very surprised if they were the beginning of any significant change for the reasons Danny Finkelstein set out this morning: the Queen’s speech and the government’s legislative plans for the coming months will have completely passed by the vast majority of the electorate.

As the months go by we keep seeing things that might have potentially changed the situation slipping past without any obvious change in the big picture: one was the party conference season, then the Conservative response to the ratification of Lisbon. I’m doubting the Queen’s Speech will be the one either. Looking at what’s left before the campaign itself, I think there are only about four “known unknowns” left in the months ahead that might be noticed by enough people to make a significant change to the political terrain (though of course, there could be any number of unknown unknowns that we can’t predict).

1) The budget
Not many events in the political calendar really get noticed by by the wider public. The exceptions are probably the conference season (most people don’t watch the actual conferences of course, but some of the saturation coverages gets through), and the budget, which people pay attention to it because it directly affects their wallet. Certainly before elections governments use them to curry public favour with good news stories and tax cuts, but they are not an automatic positive if they are perceived as dishonest, unfair or incompetent, nor if the government is forced to hike taxes or deliver bad news. In the present situtation, Alistair Darling is likely to have very limited room for manoeuvre: he won’t have money for tax cuts, and if he does scrape something together it risks backfiring when questions about repairing the public finances are asked. Still, there is potential here, especially if Darling can deliver some good news. This brings us to…

2) The end of the recession
Economic optimism has already returned. There are several different trackers following people’s expectations on the economy, they have all come back strongly since 2008 and early 2009, with some in positive territory. However, it does not seem to have produced any meaningful recovery for Labour. However, I’m still not ready to conclude for certain that it’s not going to have an effect – if an improved economy is going to improve Labour’s position in the polls, I think the trigger may be when the recession formally comes to an end, when the good news will no doubt be plastered across the media and the government will be primed to capitalise. That was expected in the last lot of quarterly economic figures, but never arrived. With the rest of Europe emerging from recession it must be very likely that the next lot of figures will show the formal end of the recession.

3) The last chance for a Labour change of leadership
The endless media speculation of whether Brown will stay or go is gradually drawing to a close, we will get to a point where it is so close to an election that Labour really cannot change their leader. We’ve long since passed the point when there could be a formal challenge, we may be past the point where an open rebellion by MPs to oust Brown is feasible. It’s probably still just about possible that a cabinet delegation go to Brown at the start of January and quietly tell him that he no longer has the necessary support to continue and should stand down for the sake of the party. It is looking increasingly unlikely, but if it does happen it obviously has the potential to change everything.

4) The leaders’ debates
They’ve never happened before, and if they happen this time we can be fairly certain they will get huge attention and viewing figures. With the attention they receive they certainly have the potential to change things around. However, realistically the chances of them helping Labour must be very low. When it comes down to it polls constantly show that people like David Cameron and dislike Gordon Brown – increased focus on the choice between the two men will likely help the Conservatives. David Cameron is seen as charismatic, he is an interesting speaker with emotional intelligence and ability to connect with the public. These are not, to put it kindly, Gordon Brown’s strengths. One thing in Gordon Brown’s favour is expectations – polls show that people overwhelmingly expect David Cameron to win any debate, so the pressure will be on him to deliver, and Gordon Brown won’t have to do much to surpass expectations.

I think the one with the most potential to change things is a change of Labour leadership, but I think it is now very unlikely. I would be surprised if the budget made much difference, and the debates (if they happen) are more likely to help the Conservatives. From my four known unknowns I think the one with the most chance of changing things is when the end of the recession is announced. Who knows what effect any unknown unknowns might have, but the number of opportunities for Labour to turn things around are rapidly dwindling.

151 Responses to “The Known Unknowns”

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  1. @Nick Keene – “One of the reasons I dislike listening to people like Alec rant on is the way they simply cannot conduct any sort of discussion without making snide remarks about the character of politicans they don’t happen to agree with.” Apart from being untrue in the case of the vast majority of my posts, I’m assuming you applied the same feelings to Colin’s original post I responded to regarding his comments about Brown?

    In terms of poll impacts, I can’t see Thatcher’s death having any great impact one way or the other, but I think it’s also a little unseemly to discuss how an ex PMs death might affect the polls while they are still living. I think AW’s analysis is probably right, although the budget could be an opportunity to spring some surprises. There isn’t new money to spend, but there are plenty of redistributive measures such as NI and pension relief that could be used to effectively offer a tax neutral tax cut to a large swathe of middle/low earners should Darling want to be radical as a last throw of the dice.

  2. Jon K – party of Thatcher is nothing on party of Blair and Brown.

  3. re “The end of the recession”

    There is something very odd going on in UK.
    The Experian report to market contains some striking comments about UK banks:-

    “Don Robert, chief executive of Experian, said clients 9 banks) in the US and on the continent are recovering but those in the UK remain “more challenged than in any other market”. “The most troubling part is that I’m not convinced defaults have yet peaked,” he added. “None of the UK banks are even thinking about growth. They are playing a very defensive game.
    That contrasts with the US, he said, where “the ‘open for business’ signs are out in a cautious way”, and Europe, which is “showing signs of life”. ”

    The inference is that UK banks have had-& continue to have much weaker Balance Sheets than thelr counterparts in US/EU.
    Given that many of these UK banks are now supported by massive state funding, that suggests that the UK economy is still waiting for the UK banking sector to recapitalise , before any of these funds start feeding into credit & consumption.

    Our Banks must have got into a truly horrendous state & this must be adversly influencing the shape of our trajectory out of recession .

  4. @ Mark

    Interesting points about 1992 and 1997.

    I have myself feared a 1992 scenario however if you look back at the opinion polls in the run up to that election (available on this site) you will note that it was a much closer contest with the parties flirting either side of level pegging for most of the 6 months. The Tories were even ahead for a while in early 92. There wasn’t a long term 14 point Labour lead back then. So I’m a little surprised why Kinnock was getting so excited!

    In 1997 I don’t think John Major was dispised as much as Brown is today – although I am probably a little biased I do think that Brown’s contempt for the electorate and arrogant assertion that the PM’s job is his god-given right is a contrast to John Major who was seen as down-to-earth and innoffensive. However, and it is a big however I just don’t get the feeling that David Cameron is anywhere as near as Tony Blair was back then. So I would be very surprised if we saw a 179 seat Tory majority this time. Also the LDs are stronger now than in 97.

    My guess from here is that we could see the polls widen in the Tories’ favour but as likely they will narrow a little maybe into the 6-12 point range averaging at around 10 which will cause much media talk of hung parliaments etc. I’m also guessing that the public will not be taken in by the inevitable muck throwing and smearing that the Mandelson spin factory will produce and that on the night we will see a robust but not spectacular Tory majority. I was thinking 53 seats but my gut feel now is for a slightly higer 68.

    This situation I speculate will be closer to 1979 than 1992 or 1997.

  5. Oops somehow missed out “as popular as” in the Cameron/Blair sentence above.

  6. I think oil prices could be the final undoing of Brown.They,re rising and remember the last time they did that Labour slumped.

  7. @Andrew

    I agree – this is no 1992 (a much wider gap today, even allowing for the bias in the system), but no 1997 either (Labour were far ahead throughout almost all of the 92-97 parliament, and unlike Cameron, Blair really had “sealed the deal”). It’s somewhere in-between – which is what makes it so interesting :-)

    @D Bliss – I know I suggested Labour fortunes were inverse related to the price of petrol a while back, but it was meant to be tongue in cheek! :)

  8. D Bliss – you may have hit on something. During the fuel protests in 2000 Tony Blair suffered his only period of being behind in the polls during his first parliament. I genuinely do think the price of petrol makes a difference – it affects everybody (including non-motorists as it affects food prices), and everybody knows most of it is tax, so even when its rise is not tax related, it makes the government unpopular.

    Also, let us not forget there will be a VAT increase on 1 January, affectting just about every area of people’s lives – including a fairly significant effect on petrol prices, which will jump by about 3p/litre overnight.

  9. Is it a VAT increase when it returns to what it ought to be? And who really notices when it goes up the 2 1/2% on normal goods–I always thought it was a pointless shift.

    And the public recognises the need to raise taxes, so I don’t think anyone will alter votes on this. 200 in a boom time has nothing to do with now recession time…

  10. 2000 – sorry !

  11. One of unknowns has just become known:

    Looks like expenses has some way to run yet…

    How did he slip through Cameron’s thorough review of all Tory expenses???

  12. I don’t mean people will directly think “Oh, VAT has gone up – bad – don’t vote Labour”. The point I was making is that the VAT rise will make a discernable difference to the price certain items – most notably petrol. This could very easily have a detrimental impact on government polling figures – or at least firm up existing anti-Labour feeling.

  13. I would like to pose a question apropos the %age needed by the cons to win outright.
    My view has been and is that the cons will perform better in the marginals (even more than the politics home poll) due to a heightened awareness and hence zeal to get rid of the Government, tactical voting, party machine and activist focus etc.
    As such I have felt for some time that 6% would secure a small majority and 7-8% a satisfactory working majority – beyond that decent, good and land-slide…
    My only reservation is that I believe the improved performance in marginals is exponential and reduces as the lead gets smaller.
    For the gap to be reduced to 6% there would have to be a significant change in general sentiment toward the Government and/or the cons. As such tactical voting, activist morale, etc will be different..
    FWIW I’m in the ’79 camp a decent working majority but no land-slide. Only difference opposition seats more divided as LDs and Nats doing better.Labour would take 38-32-20 now, or should do.

  14. @Andrew Myers – I would agree with your view of Brown vs Major in the public estimation. The problem Major had was less personal contempt but a much greater sense of party disunity – there had been open civil war within Tory ranks for years, much worse than Labour’s experience now (which says something). It was a cumulative build up of disgust at the party, with the sense that the leader wasn’t up to it, rather then being someone to despise. In a way this might make Labour’s job in opposition easier, as the decontamination process could be made more straightforward by a leadership change.

    @D Bliss – I suspect oil prices will not be the undoing of Brown – he’ll likely be gone before we see the full set of fireworks. Rather it will be the undoing of all of us. In the last global downturn in 2000 – 2001 oil hit $20. This was a full blown recession and huge financial shock yet oil is trading at $80 or so. There simply isn’t enough oil out there, and even the oil industry now appears to accept we’ve past ‘peak oil’ some time in 2008. Start worrying, whoever wins in 2010.

  15. The reason Cameron cannot secure a 150+ seat majority is Tony Blair. This country placed every hope it had on red in 1997 and it came up black.
    The fresh faced centrist leader (even if we like him) will from now on be treated with caution.
    As for Brown, he remains a sitting duck. And i feel a few commentors on these pages seriously under-estimate his unpopularity. To every voter i speak to (and i live in a seat which tends to be won by the party who forms government) he is a figure of embarassment. A dithering buffoon. He appeals no more to voters in crucial marginal seats than Margaret Thatcher would to Central Glasgow, and i just don’t see it changing.
    A Tory majority of 60 or so seems likely, but i wouldn’t rule out a figure a little higher.

  16. Alec

    ” – they just haven’t been caught with their trousers down yet”.

    What with all the comments on this thread being due to Conservative Swingers, and the reputation of past Conservative governments there would seem to be plenty of opportunity for that but the voters arn’t going to take sex scandals as seriously as they did in the days of John Profumo.

  17. Jon

    Plans for a state funeral for Margaret Thatcher agreed by a Labour government were made public during the Glasgow East bye-election.

    That event will be no game changer to the disadvantage of Scottish Conservatives so far as this election is concerned as they are down to their core vote already, but realists among them will breathe a sigh of relief that they can at last move on and begin to rebuild the party in Scotland.

    Nor will it work to the advantage of Labour, since any Left-leaning legislation they can claim credit for has perhaps unfairly, been overshadowed by Conservative policies which they have adopted, and because they have authorised it.

    Without it, I don’t expect the SNP to win more than half their target 20 seats, but if the TV retrospective of the Thatcher years is extensive enough then my guess is that it is worth two or perhaps three further seats to the SNP.

  18. @ D Bliss

    A good fuel strike in early April with the country coming close to collapse and Brown bimbling around having little idea what to do would surely be a very early Christmas present for Mr Cameron!

  19. I too think the VAT increase will make the government even more unpopular. Raising taxes in the middle of a recession! Isn’t that what they accused the Tories of wanting to do?

    I actually agree with Jack on this one, as the reduction was always intended to be temporary, but think of when the 10% tax rate was abolished. This had been pre-announced at least 6 months beforehand, yet still caused uproar when it happened (unfairly in my view).

    I also agree with Paul H-J. If any comparison of the modern Tories with Mrs Thatcher is made; while it will enrage the hard left who wouldn’t vote Tory anyway, it might remind people that she successfully dug us out of the hole we were left in by the last Labour government and won 3 elections, however much she was hated by a minority.

  20. Danny Boy

    “He appeals no more to voters in crucial marginal seats than Margaret Thatcher would to Central Glasgow”

    While I agree that being “Heir to Blair” is a big disadvantage that’s beyond my capacity to imagine it.

  21. Some of the posts above are really interesting.

    May I pose a question. What do you think would be the effect on the GE if Brown had to step down at Xmas and we had a new PM in the NY?

    Thanks Al

  22. @ AL J – “May I pose a question. What do you think would be the effect on the GE if Brown had to step down at Xmas and we had a new PM in the NY?”

    But who would it be? Personally I can’t think of a single likely candidate in the Labour government who has sufficient popularity, ability and gravitas to make a significant difference. The chief credential of the best on offer seems to be simply that they are “not Gordon Brown” and I don’t think that’s enough to change Labour’s fortunes around. It might save the party a few seats but I doubt it would be anywhere near sufficient to challenge Tory dominance.

  23. Danny Boy

    Tony Blair received 43.2% in 1997, and so it is quite possible that David C will match this. Labour may even match the Tory 30.7%.

    If this occurs it will not be such a landslide as occurred in 1997 because of the boundaries.

  24. If Milliband took over now I’d think he’d turn a near landslide to being just a serious defeat, not least being that he is much smoother and media savvy than Brown. It would then provide him with a much stronger number base for 5 years time. If he waits and the possible landslide occurs it may take 2 elections to win.

  25. Pete B
    ‘I also agree with Paul H-J. If any comparison of the modern Tories with Mrs Thatcher is made; while it will enrage the hard left who wouldn’t vote Tory anyway, it might remind people that she successfully dug us out of the hole we were left in by the last Labour government and won 3 elections, however much she was hated by a minority.’

    Mind you finally her own party threw her out; just like Blair. Sorry, far too many people are now young enough to say ‘who’?; Thatcher is now past history for most of the electorate and the preceding Labour Govt is even more so.

    The battles of the past are irrelevant; parties reshape over time. The right-wing New Labour is certainly nothing like old Labour–equally the current Tories would recoil (I hope) from Thatcher’s slash and burn policies (shall we go back to schools with leaking roofs and school meals with no nutritional values, for example…?)

  26. With regard to rising oil prices:

    This will be significant if the rise in price also coincides with the VAT rate going back up.

  27. Why don’t the polls reflect the fact that democracy has been eroded in the UK over the last 18 months? Does 25% or so of the population really not care that we have an unelected PM / deputy PM and we have been forced to accept the Lisbon treaty which has had ludicrous results? Do so many Brits not care?

  28. Anthony,

    Have you news of any polls coming out this weekend ?


  29. Wayne. Ipsos-Mori in the Observer apparently. Fieldwork last weekend,so rather out-of-date, probably couldn’t sell it – IM do not have many regulars.

  30. Can anyone tell us why VIPA is attracting no attention whatever, even from Mike Smithson? Has it already been discredited? Surprised the Conservatives have not latched on to it. Too good to be true perhaps -“mustn’t be complacent”.

  31. RC
    Yes. and a good many LibDems (and middle-of the road Tories) don’t care either, and don’t see the “ludicrous results” that you see.

    Even worse for UKIP’s polling position would be if/when we find out the effects of excluding our workers from the rights to m/paternity leave, the right to refuse to work all the hours requested by employers, and all those other pesky beaurocratic bars to wealth-creation

  32. A totally unscientific comment from an old codger. I have voted in every election since 1959. The run-up to this election feels more like 1979 than any other, the desire to change the Government is widespread – but there is unease at what might follow. So I expect Cameron to win, not with a landslide but with a good working majority: 40 to 50. Incidentally, I have argued, down the local mainly, that 1997 was an aberration; the only GE that was, in reality, a pure Presidential election.

  33. I believe the Tories need a 9% lead for an overall majority – and 8% to form a minority Tory Government.
    To become the largest party in a Hung Parliament I suspect a Tory lead of 5-6% is required.

  34. One known unknown not mentioned by AW was whether Blair would become Presdient of the EU, and would this effect Con / UKIP support.

    Well, while Blair’s hopes had clearly faded a couple of weeks back, we do now know not just that he is not the EU President, but also that that post has gone to a low-profile Belgian. More interestingly, the wife of one of YouGov’s resident commentators is now the EU Foreign Secretary.

    I suspect that having Herman van Rompuy as President will have brought a sigh of relief to Cameron. While there may be some grumbles about the UK being “ruled” by a Belgian, it could have been a lot worse. Net effect is that any slippage to UKIP will be minor, and maybe even temporary. The chances are that not just the name but also the existence of the “EU President” will have been forgotten by May.

    Lady Ashton on the other hand is a rum choice. Was this a consolation prize ? Was it supposed to be Milliband, but that got blocked by Brown on the grounds he can’t afford another by-election in England ? Or did Milliband pass up the post in the hope of becoming leader of the opposition next year ?

    Let us not forget that Lady Ashton only comes into the frame by virtue of having been substituted onto the Commission when Brown parachuted Mandy back into the cabinet.

    There is a real prospect that Brown’s “success” in having a Brit in this senior role will backfire on Labour as yet another example of Brown’s cavalier disregard for constitutional and democratic niceties.

  35. @Paul HJ
    Paul, I agree that this episode brings a bit of relief for Cameron and probable trouble for Brown. Once again he flys in the face of his critics, and an unelected woman no one has ever heard of
    joins the gravy train. Where his reputation for political nous came from God only knows.

  36. I can’t see any of the EU “Lisbon” appointments registering with the average voter at all.
    The three appointees are all unknowns-even the British one.

    For people interested in EU matters, the outcome of the whole charade might emphasise the determination of the all powerful Franco-German axis not to see their pervading influence inhibited by the holders of these new posts.
    And with a raving Federalist as President, Eurosceptics will merely shake their heads knowingly.

    It won’t effect the UK GE one jot though.

    In the Times today, Sam Lister gives an interesting analysis of Brown’s latest rabbit out of a hat-the QS Social Care proposals.
    He concludes that it’s flaws, and the concerted & widespread disagreement with it in Lords, Commons , Charities & care providers could ” not only sink the Bill, but could yet help sink a government ”

    So-another Known Unknown?

    And today also the intriguing revelations emanating from the hacking at the Hadley Climate Research Unit-if genuine-suggest some quite disturbing , partial & unscientific behaviour from “climate change scientists”.

    That could have serious global political ramifications if the story runs.

    Rumsfeld’s Unknown Unknowns should never be discounted.

  37. RC,

    ” we have an unelected PM / deputy PM and we have been forced to accept the Lisbon treaty which has had ludicrous results? ”

    I think you’ll find that we don’t actually elect PM’s in this country.

    We elect 650 or so individuals who then form a government along party lines. The post then goes to the leader of the party that forms the government.

    If you want a US style president that is fine, but don’t pretend that Brown becoming PM mid term, like Major did, is anything other than how the system has always worked.

    As to Lisbon as with Maastricht, the elected government of the day negotiated and ratified the treaty just like any other and that again is how our system has always worked.

    Again you might not like the result and prefer a different system but that isn’t the same as us being forced into anything.


  38. @ Cllr. Peter – “I think you’ll find that we don’t actually elect PM’s in this country.”

    True, but it’s a flaw in our system given that leaders clearly ARE important both to the public and in terms of the extra powers a PM has. So while Brown’s undemocratic elevation to the premiership without even so much as a leadership contest is certainly legal at present, it doesn’t therefore follow that we shouldn’t object to it. Those of us who dislike how the situation was handled should object very loudly indeed, with the aim of getting the rules changed so that it can’t happen again. At the very least, a proper leadership contest should be compulsory.

  39. James,

    I have to agree with Peter on this one.

    Brown may not be popular, but there is nothing flawed about his appointment as PM. Indeed, one could argue that he enjoys more democratic legitimacy than either John Major pre 1992 or Callaghan ever did since it was generally assumed in 2005 that he would take over when Blair “retired”, the main question being when not if.

    That Brown has not been a great PM is quite separate from the manner of his arrival.

    I have never subscribed to the “unelected PM” theory. Indeed, I believe that this only really gained credence when Brown appeared to favour an early election then bottled it. Had he never toyed so dangerously with the idea in the summer of 2007, I doubt we would be hearing much about the lack of any leadership election, since that is essentially an internal Labour matter.

  40. Indeed. The PM’s ability to use the Royal Prerogative means that he actually has more power in some areas than many Heads of State who usually have to consult their parliaments on such matters as declaring war (though I believe the rule on that particular prerogative may have changed recently).

  41. @Colin – “And today also the intriguing revelations emanating from the hacking at the Hadley Climate Research Unit-if genuine-suggest some quite disturbing , partial & unscientific behaviour from “climate change scientists”.

    That could have serious global political ramifications if the story runs. ”

    I would be very surprised if this story amounted to anything more serious than an attempt by extremely well funded climate change skeptics to cause trouble. I could be wrong, but I know many individual scientists working in the climatology field, and they are all aghast at the data they are finding and all of them fervently hope they are wrong. This story suggests to me a fundamental misunderstanding of how scientific research works and has all the hallmarks of a pre Copenhagen smear against a highly respected research institution. It’s interesting that it was first posted via a Russian server – home of some of the biggest gas reserves and greatest internet crooks, but maybe that’s me being a touch too quick to jump to conclusions.

  42. Interesting. While these could all provide a boost for the government, with the exception of the end of the recession, they could just as easily affect Labour in a negative way. Changing leader would be an enormous risk, especially if they didn’t get it absolutely right. On top of that, I suspect we’re a bit too close to an election now for electors not to feel that a move at this late stage would be anything other than entirely cynical. It could backfire.

    Even the end of the recession could go wrong. If Brown hangs on until the last minute before calling an election, there is a chance that the next quarter’s figures would show the economy dipping back into negative territory again, and that would not play well. If the recession ends, might we be more likely to see an early election?

  43. @ Paul – you’re wrong. If you recall, in the run-up to the general election for Labour’s third term, Blair unequivocally stated that he would serve a full third term in office. I won’t put a link in this comment because it takes an eternity to be approved but if you Google “Blair vows to serve full third term” it will take you to a Times article and various others reporting this.

    It’s funny how people have forgotten this little detail – I’ve encountered the same amnesia a number of times. But the fact is that Labour was re-elected to a third term in office under those terms, certainly not on the assumption that Brown would take over midterm.

  44. James Ludlow

    You are technically correct – though did anyone believe it?

    The standard response that I remember was the Scots phrase “Aye, right” (I don’t think anyone else uses the double positive negative – but I’m open to correction).

  45. @ OldNat – it doesn’t really matter how many “believed” it. That was the platform on which Labour went into and won a general election for a third term – a clearly stated promise that certainly did not say Brown would be arriving on a No.9 bus at midterm.


    “a clearly stated promise that certainly did not say Brown would be arriving on a No.9 bus at midterm”

    If we had elections or referendum every time a Party did something it hadn’t promised or broke a promise it had made…. they would be weekly…..


  47. James,

    As noted by OldNat, yes, that was the public position, but most people understood that Brown would follow Blair. As I commented, the question was not “if” but “when” Brown would become PM.

    One could argue that the public expected Blair to last more than two years, but equally, had he fallen under the proverbial bus or resigned for some reason other than that he could no longer stand Brown’s plotting, no one would have been surprised that Brown took the helm.

    Where the “unelected” tag became more powerful was that Brown ruthlessly suppressed any challenge even though it was clear that he would have won anyway, and then followed it up by shelving his election plans when private polling indicated that a victory, while likely, could not be assumed. It is Brown’s aversion to risk the outcome of a vote which has tarred Brown, not any subornment of protocol.

  48. BBC East has a story of oil tankers moored off Southwold waiting for oil prices to go up.


    David Davis was ahead of the game, although he did consider Brown to be a “socialist”, which, it transpires, was wholly wrong.

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