NOW that the General Election campaign is finally underway after the formalities of the Prime Minister’s audience with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, it is now up to the major parties to make their pitches to the electorate.
It already promises, after yesterday’s opening gambits, to be an election like no other. Even though only two leaders – David Cameron and Ed Miliband – have any prospect of leading the country after May 7, this poll is already destined to be the most bitterly fought in history.
The final outcome is made even more tantalising by the rise in support for Ukip and the Scottish National Party at a time when the public’s respect for politicians has still not been regained following the 2009 expenses scandal.
And the very likelihood of a hung parliament probably explains why the word ‘chaos’ featured so prominently on day one of electioneering as Mr Cameron stood in front of the door of 10 Downing Street and rubbished Labour’s economic record while Mr Miliband was similarly dismissive of Tory plans to hold a referendum in 2017 on Britain’s membership of the European Union.
If this is the foretaste of the next five and a half weeks, it is difficult to envisage either party being able to secure a decisive breakthrough and being able to form the strong and stable government ready to respond to the major political, economic and global challenges confronting the country.
This negative campaigning, so at odds with electioneering in the past when leaders packed public halls and spoke with gravitas, and extraordinary detail, on the great issues of the day, will become increasingly counter-productive if the parties cannot set out – and then defend – their respective visions.
In contrast to Labour, which immediately had to go on the defensive after two leading businesses distanced themselves from a full-page advertisement that warned of the threat to trade if Britain leaves the EU, Mr Cameron does have a positive narrative.
Despite its imperfections, the Tory coalition with the Lib Dems has set Britain back on the road to economic prosperity following the longest, and deepest, recession since the war. A record number of people are in work and the country has become far more aspirational over the past five years.
But it was striking that the Mr Cameron’s speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street did not feature the word ‘Conservative’. Although it was pointed out that he was, in fact, speaking in his capacity as Prime Minister, it did not stop him from using this platform to denigrate Mr Miliband by name.
The likelihood is that this omission was a tacit recognition that the Conservative Party still has to convince sufficient voters in the bellwether West Yorkshire marginal seats, and other Northern constituencies so pivotal to Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s electoral appeal, that the NHS and welfare system will be safe in Tory hands.
It is a totemic argument which will not be settled by the repeated denunciation, however valid, of the Labour alternative. This election deserves to be won by the party that offers the most enticing vision rather than the leader most adept at talking down the country. The evidence of the past five years points to Mr Cameron out-performing his main rival on the economy and question of leadership; his challenge now is convincing sufficient voters. It will be a close call.
IT will be of little consolation to rush-hour motorists snarled up in traffic jams in Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield that congestion levels are even worse in other cities across the UK. It shows the extent to which Britain’s road network is now buckling under the strain of vehicle numbers which were simply not envisaged when major routes were being constructed.
Yet today’s survey is also indicative of the extent to which this country, and the North in particular, is now paying the price for decades of under-investment in the nation’s transport infrastructure. There are no easy answers – schemes like widening the A1M or improving the flow of traffic at gridlocked roundabouts on the Leeds Ring Road take time.
It also explains why there needs to be greater realism on the Government’s part about the two high-speed rail lines planned for this region. While the trans-Pennine route, and also the line from Leeds and Sheffield to London, have the potential to increase capacity, there is little chance of them being constructed for two decades. In the meantime, it is vital that George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse blueprint does pave the way for the improvement of local roads and railways in the interim – travellers will not be in a forgiving mood if it only amounts to jam tomorrow.