A leaked document has shown that Rochester and Strood is no longer considered a target seat for the Conservatives. On the face of it, there is nothing too shocking about this. This is just one seat out of 650 seats and the Conservatives cannot be expected to win every seat. However, this is a seat with special significance. This seat was won by Mark Reckless in a by election in November after his defection from the Conservatives to UKIP, thus making it different to most other seats.
The by-election campaign fought earlier this year had a very personal nature. Tories angered at the Reckless defection sought to publicly attack and undermine him in a very negative campaign. David Cameron famously promised ‘to throw the kitchen sink at it’ and the Tories were confident of holding onto the seat in the by-election. However they failed and Reckless won pretty comfortably. After this loss, the Tories then claimed they would do all they could to win the seat in May and believed they could regain it in the General Election. It now appears the Tory Party may be having a re-think.
There are 101 constituencies on this leaked list of “non-target” seats. Normally these are either seats which are considered traditionally as a safe hold for the Conservatives or a safe hold for one of their opponents, places where the Tories will not be putting in a lot of time, effort or resources. Rochester and Strood was previously seen as a relatively safe Conservative seat before it went to UKIP, not a traditional no-win seat and therefore it is puzzling as to why it appears on the list.
The reaction from Tory HQ to this list coming into the public domain has been surprisingly calm. They claim the conclusions that are being drawn are wide of the mark. However if the commentators and pundits are right then it does pose some interesting questions. Rochester and Strood is the type of seat the Tories would need to win if they want to gain an outright majority. If they have given up on this seat, then does this signal that they have given up on a majority? Not for the first time the public pronouncement of a political party may be very different from what it is truly thinking in private, in this case suggesting ambitions are somewhat lower than they might like to admit.
With the election only a few months away there is now a greater focus on parliament and in particular the weekly edition of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). This is the flagship event of the week in parliament and is poured over and dissected by the media. This greater focus and scrutiny has led to renewed criticism in recent months though, with many aspects of PMQs being criticized.
The criticisms, although wide ranging, have focused on specific aspects. The chamber is very loud and ill-disciplined with MPs struggling to be heard, and the Speaker regularly having to intervene to bring order. The questions between Miliband and Cameron normally descend into public insults with both being heckled loudly whenever they attempt to speak. The majority of questions are pre-planted and are designed either to attack the Prime Minister or to give him the chance to show off his record. PMQs is no longer the place where important constituency matters can be raised, but is now simply an occasion for parties to try and score political points and trot out their pre-election slogans.
We all enjoy the passion and theatre of the Commons, but to remain relevant there does need to be a level of control. Our parliament should be robust and passionate but this passion should be directed at the issues. This is an opportunity where the Prime Minister is supposed to be being held to account; an opportunity currently missed.
PMQs is shown all over the world and for a lot of people who live outside the UK it is the only glimpse of the British Parliament that they see. The raucous scenes of PMQs are therefore often the only example of what our Parliament is like and given the childish and petty behaviour of many MPs at PMQs this is not something which should sit well with any of us who care about our parliament.
PMQs is not working in its current format. It is failing to achieve what it was intended to do and major reform is needed if it is to again be worthwhile. As the face of parliament PMQs does not present a good image and does little for democracy. The behaviour of the MPs is childish, the questions are pre-planned, the answers are scripted and most of the time you can barely hear yourself think. Our parliament and our democracy must be better than this.
In 1997 Michael Portillo lost his seemingly safe of Enfield Southgate to Labour. Labour were widely expected to win the 1997 General Election but no one believed they would be competitive in seats such as Portillo’s. The moment has gone down in political folklore for two reasons. Firstly, because of its subsequent impact as Portillo was widely expected to become the Conservative leader after the election and secondly, because of how big a political scalp Portillo was. If current polling is to be believed deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg could be about to suffer the same fate.
In 2010, riding on the back of the televised debates Nick Clegg won over 50% of the vote and had a majority of 15,000. Since he has entered government Clegg’s popularity and that of the Liberal Democrats has fallen through the floor. Clegg’s seat of Sheffield Hallam has a high proportion of students who are angry with Clegg for breaking his promise on tuition fees and are eager to punish him. Even with the existing large majority his seat could be under threat.
Two recent polls have suggested that Clegg is currently behind and could lose his seat in 2015. One poll carried out by Survation and Unite has Clegg ten points behind and another poll carried out by Lord Ashcroft has Clegg three points behind. The usual pinch of salt must be taken with polls, but it does appear Clegg is in for a real battle.
Labour believe their best chance of forming a coalition with the Lib Dems is if Clegg is removed and a new leader is elected and therefore are quite open about how they are targeting the Sheffield Hallam seat. Clegg however is believed to favour a deal with the Tories rather than with Labour but without a seat he would be relegated to the position of interested onlooker.
Clegg still has that large majority and could yet receive the backing of tactical Conservative voting to stop Labour. However there is a real chance he could lose his seat and no doubt much of the media will be eagerly awaiting another Portillo moment. It was always going to be unlikely Clegg could carry on as leader after this election, but a poor result could be the final nail in his coffin. This is certainly one result to look out for on election night.
The prospect of a post-election UKIP Conservative coalition is something which may have seemed quite enticing to many on the Eurosceptic wing on the Conservative Party. However this possibility has been quashed by Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps who has ruled out any pacts or deals with UKIP. With the polls still pointing towards a hung parliament, this appears a bold move.
The Conservative Party will claim that they are fighting for an overall majority but privately accept that their chances of achieving this appear slim. There does remain a possibility though that they could be the largest party in a hung parliament. In this case they would have the first opportunity to form a new government and would be left with two options; running a minority government or attempting to form another coalition.
With UKIP seemingly ruled out, the most likely coalition partner for the Conservatives would again be the Liberal Democrats. For this deal to succeed a number of hurdles would have to be overcome. Firstly the parliamentary numbers would need to work to provide a stable government. There would also have to be an appetite on both sides; policies they could agree on; and an improvement in current relations. Overcoming all these problems to secure the support of both parliamentary parties will not be easy.
The other option would be a minority administration. The rumours are this is the option many in the Conservative Party would prefer and are leaning towards. This would rely on keeping the party together, which may prove easier said than done and would require doing deals behind the scenes with other parties. A minority government would lack stability and leave the party open to the whims of others, running the risk of being overthrown at any stage.
The Conservatives have emerged from the current coalition bruised, but seemingly unscathed. Whilst perhaps not seeking to rush into another coalition, it will certainly be an option should the election deliver another hung parliament. There is little doubt that the Conservative Party are considering all their options, but with a coalition deal with UKIP ruled out and any deal with the SNP a non-starter their options appear limited. For that reason alone do not be shocked to see Cameron and Clegg reach another agreement. The marriage between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats may not be over yet.