One interesting feature of UK General Elections is that even the most famous politicians in the UK have to get re elected in their own constituencies. David Cameron for example is not the Prime Minister – he is the humble Conservative candidate for Witney. Likewise the man who wants to replace him as Prime Minister – Labour leader Ed Miliband – is just the Labour candidate for Doncaster North. And if either lose their seat they cannot be Prime Minister as you have to be an MP to be Prime Minister. Now I should say that Witney and Doncaster North are safe seats for their parties and the chances of either man losing are nil.
However famous names can and do lose at elections. One example was Patrick Gordon Walker who lost Smethwick (see previous post) in the 1964 election which eventually cost him the job of Foreign Secretary. But the most famous slaughter of big names came in Labour’s 1997 landslide where 7 out of 22 MPs who were in the Conservative Cabinet lost their seats including the most infamous defeat in UK politics.
In 1997 Michael Portillo was the most hated politician in the country – called a “bastard” by his own party’s Prime Minister John Major. And Labour hated him too! Still he was defending a majority of over 15,000 in Enfield Southgate so he was expected to win – and then become leader of his party after their election defeat. But Labour took Southgate on a huge swing of 17.4 % (the UK swing to Labour in 1997 was 10 %). It was such a memorable event it became known as the “Portillo Moment*” and briefly coined a UK catchphrase “Were you up for Portillo**?” But that result only affected the leadership of the Conservative Party – not the result of the election. There is just the possibility of a “Portillo Moment” in this year’s election – and this could decide who goes to Number 10 Downing Street on May 8th.
The man in question is the leader of the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems for short) and the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Like Portillo he is defending a majority of over 15,000 in his seat – Sheffield Hallam. Like Portillo he should be safe. But like Portillo he is hated in the UK. This is partly because a lot of Lib Dems hate the Conservatives and didn’t want the party to go into coalition with them. But his real mistake was to say during the 2010 campaign that he would oppose an increase in tuition fees for students in England and Wales – and then he voted for an increase once he was in government. As the Lib Dems had campaigned for the student vote in 2010 on the issue of not raising them they felt betrayed. I don’t think many students will vote for the party this time. And unfortunately for Clegg his constituency includes Sheffield Hallam university! A poll earlier this year in the seat suggested he was behind Labour and just ahead of the Conservatives. He might even finish third.
But this matters more than just wither or not Clegg holds the seat. If Clegg does lose the seat it could cost his boss David Cameron his job of Prime Minister. This is because it looks like no one party will get a majority and who becomes Prime Minister will depend on who can do deals with smaller parties. Most people think that the current coalition was built on the chemistry between Clegg and Cameron. As I wrote above the majority of the Lib Dems are hostile to the Conservatives and a new leader – which the party would need if Clegg loses – is likely to want to either deal with Labour or go back into opposition.
This could cause real trouble for David Cameron. if the Lib Dems won’t deal with him who will? A look at the other parties who had MPs in the last Parliament is not encouraging for him.
Scottish National Party (SNP) – had 6 MPs in the last parliament. Their constitution bans deals with the Conservatives.
Plaid Cyrmu – 3 MPs – won’t back a Conservative government that the people of Wales reject. The Conservatives have never won a general election in Wales
United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – 2 MPs – might go with the Conservatives but would take Cameron to the right where he does not want to go. Also unlikely to win many seats and might lose the two they have.
Green Party – 1 MP – Caroline Lucas who said in 2010 she would not vote for a Conservative government. One suspects if the party wins more seats those MPs would agree with their former leader.
Respect – 1 MP – George Galloway who got kicked out of Labour for opposing the Iraq war. There is no way he would back the Conservatives.
Then there are the Northern Ireland parties:
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – 8 MPs – Cameron’s best hope. But they would want rid of the bedroom tax and more spending for Northern Ireland which Cameron would oppose.
Sinn Fein – 5 MPs – who don’t take their seats so can be discounted. Wouldn’t deal with the Conservatives anyway.
Social Democratic and Labour Party – 3MPs – A sister party of Labour. Enough said
Alliance Party – 1 MP – A sister party of the Lib Dems but the MP – Naomi Long – did not back the coalition or take the Lib Dem whip.
It is clear form the list above that the parties outside the “big three” are more likely to back Labour than the Conservatives. That means Cameron’s only hope of remaining Prime Minister is to do a “Coalition version 2” with the Lib Dems. But if Clegg is defeated the chances of that happening are at best greatly reduced and at worse gone. With this in mind of the 650 seats in this election Sheffield Hallam is the most important. It could on its own decide David Cameron’s fate. It could very well be that if Nick Clegg loses his seat that David Cameron’s chance of remaining at 10 Downing Street go with him.
* There is even a UK band called The Portillo Moment.
**This means were you awake/did you see Portillo’s defeat live on TV? The result was declared at 3.01am and the result of the election was already known so a lot of viewers would have gone to bed. If you are interested I was up for Portillo.