EACH of Britain’s four main political parties are facing significant leadership quandaries this weekend following an extraordinary set of by-election results that will form the backdrop and context to next year’s general election.
It would be churlish not to acknowledge the United Kingdom Independence Party’s electoral advance and that four-party politics is now here to stay in Britain. Ukip confounded its critics last year; it topped May’s European elections and it now has its first elected MP in the form of Tory defector Douglas Carswell. It also came within a whisker of winning the safe Labour seat of Heywood and Middleton.
Yet, while Ukip’s electoral presence can no longer be attributed to a ‘flash in the pan’ political phenomenon, how will it stand up to raised levels of public expectation and greater scrutiny of its policies?
After all, Mr Carswell’s call for Ukip to become “a party for all Britain and all Britons, first and second generation as much as every other” contrasted sharply with his leader Nigel Farage’s toxic comments on immigration and HIV. Is he the type of leader that can, and should, be entrusted with the balance of power in Parliament if the 2015 election ends in deadlock?
Significantly, the party would, in all likelihood, have won Heywood and Middleton if Mr Farage’s style of leadership was more appealing to female voters.
Next the Tories. Though they expected to lose Clacton, the Conservative vote collapsed in the Lancashire seat and Ukip has emerged as the main challenger to Labour across the North. Yet it is this region that holds the key to David Cameron’s ability to win an overall majority – and his party’s attempts to win back lost supporters with new policies on economic growth and infrastructure improvements are not yet translating into votes at the ballot box.
Now Labour. Even though they held the Heywood and Middleton seat by 600 or so votes, the party’s MPs in Rotherham are among those facing an uncertain future. There are also big question marks about Ed Miliband’s wobbly leadership – even more so after a disastrous party conference. The Doncaster North MP appears to be risking all on the vagaries of Britain’s electoral system that could enable Labour to form a government with just one third of the vote – a somewhat ironic state of affairs for a party which professes to promote fairness for all.
Finally the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg’s party polled so poorly that it is prioritising the seats that it holds. On this basis, how can they claim to speak for the whole country when they have already written off at least 600 constituencies?
In looking to the next election, there are now three certainties. This will be the most open election for a generation; Ukip’s poll showing will help to shape the result and every vote will have to be hard earned – this is a very volatile and unforgiving electorate.
Logic still points to the Conservatives being the biggest party – promised tax cuts are Mr Cameron’s trump card – but he may still pay a heavy price for not acknowledging the breakdown in trust between the political establishment and the electorate on Europe, expenses and the economy.
Wheel of fortune: £150m Tour de France dividend
THE WHEEL of good fortune continues to turn in Yorkshire’s favour after the county lived up to its promise and staged the greatest ever Grand Départ in the 101-year history of the Tour de France.
Not only did the race exceed all expectations – and create iconic imagery which was beamed to a global audience – but it was also an unprecedented success story from an economic standpoint.
Now figures show that the Tour generated £150m for the local economy – £50m more than the initial estimate and further vindication of the £27m that it cost to bring three days of world class cycling to Britain.
This is good news for those Yorkshire councils whose costs exceeded budget forecasts – they can now be reimbursed for their contribution to a sporting event without parallel after 2.8 million spectators lined the region’s roads to watch the crème de la crème of international cycling. If anyone doubted the wisdom of staging the Tour, these figures only serve to allay any lingering misgivings – one shop in West Tanfield sold a year’s supply of ice cream on a single afternoon.
It would also be remiss not to pay tribute to everyone who made this event possible, from tourism supremo Gary Verity’s audacious decision to bring the Tour here to the yellow army of volunteers who ensured that the race ran like clockwork.
It shows what is possible when the whole county pulls together – next May’s inaugural Tour of Yorkshire will be a fitting legacy – and why the Government was wrong to doubt the ambition of this region. After all, Whitehall’s original decision to back Edinburgh’s Grand Départ bid now looks even more misguided.